The Birthday Present/The Child’s Child

by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine

I freely admit that I would read Ruth Rendell’s musings on a cocktail napkin if she published them. When she’s good (some of the later “social problem” Wexfords; The Bridesmaid; all of the early Barbara Vines, particularly The House of Stairs) there’s no one better; when she misses (An Unkindness of Ravens, Live Flesh, and The Blood Doctor come to mind) she’s still interesting and, most intriguing, louche and distasteful.

Never for Dame Rendell the locked room and overturned tea cozy; for her it must be radical lesbians, genital mutilations, jilted lovers, sex-charged kidnapping games, and always—absolutely always—someone with delusions that make your little paranoid feelings feel pitiable and small by comparison.

I’ve just finished two Barbara Vines back to back (The Birthday Present and The Child’s Child). They don’t rank among my favorites, although each gives pause and contains elements worthy of top-notch literary writers. What they aren’t is top-notch Rendell.

The Birthday Present features a BDSM “kidnapping” gone terribly wrong, with downstream consequences that move far and wide from whatever trajectory you as a reader might imagine. That may be one of the book’s most interesting features—it ends up about as far away from where it started as any book could. It has a typical Vine beginning—confusing, a jumble of names and elliptical references that will only really make sense if you reread the opening five pages after you’ve finished half the book—but a really exciting middle. My pulse raced as I flipped pages toward what I hoped would be one of the great shocking endings (like that at the end of A Dark Adapted Eye, A Fatal Inversion, or the eye-crossing complexity of Anna’s Book), but the ending, while interesting and ironic, is not up to Rendell’s best.

Neither, that matter, is the end of The Child’s Child, the kind of double-decker story that Vine/Rendell has often told well (The Brimstone Wedding comes to mind) where past and present interlocking stories yield spooky parallels and irony drips from every scene. But illegitimate children and gay hate crimes (the story in the present) and a gay brother/sister feigning marriage to hide his homosexuality and her unwed mother status (the story in the past) don’t blend well, and possibly because this time she has shoehorned the past story in the form of a novel between underdeveloped frames in the present at the beginning and end of the book. Even when the present-day story veers way off course to a somewhat ironic ending, I sensed that Rendell was not in full control of her material, at least not the control I wanted her to have.

I still have several Rendells unread on my shelf that I will read when I get the chance; these two recent reads have not put me off on her as they have some (according to Amazon reviews). I say this to those considering Dame Rendell: she really is the best there is, and a recent interview with her makes me fear that The Child’s Child may well be the last time we’ll see a Barbara Vine mystery, which is a sad thing indeed.

Pick up any of the books I’ve praised above or something like Simisola (where the mystery is revealed in the final shocking sentence), Barbara Vine’s The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy (certainly one of her most ghoulish), or simply start at the beginning of her career and read forward.

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