Sunday, March 10, 2013

Barbara Vine unfolds another lurid mystery

Barbara Vine is a pseudonym for Ruth Rendell, the renowned mystery writer.  She uses Barbara Vine for her racier tales, and this is certainly one.


The Child’s Child

Under the pen-name Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell writes a compelling mystery.  The Child’s Child  (320 pages, Scribner, $26) has a simple thesis: a gay man and his sister—Andrew and Grace Easton—argue about whether gay men had it worse when they were persecuted for sodomy, as was Oscar Wilde, than did unwed mothers, of countless number, who lost much else beyond respectability when they transgressed or were led astray.  Vicitmization in both cases is severe, and the disagreement cannot be won.  But since we are reading Ruth Rendell, the situation will replicate itself in fiction, and it does in spades.

For one thing, Andrew, who is gay, brings a lover into the house which he shares with his sister.  Grace does not like a thing about Andrew’s lover James, but she does acknowledge that he is handsome.  When Andrew and James witness a brutal gay bashing near a London pub, they are shattered.  The idea that they may have to testify in court sends James nearly bonkers, and he worries himself into a state of hysteria.

Meanwhile, Grace has started reading a manuscript of a recently deceased gay novelist that the publisher is unsure about whether to publish.  Set in the later 1920s, it concerns a case of a closeted homosexual and his tormented unwed but pregnant sister.  Because John, the brother, knows he will never marry, he agrees to pose as Maud, his sister’s husband, and protect her when the family has turned its back on her.  She takes John’s help, but she cannot brook his tentative attempts to express his sexuality with a friend.  This story ends tragically, as indeed it must, but then it also reflects back onto Grace and Andrew and their confusing lives together.

It is almost as if the earlier tale—the story within a story—haunts the later tale with its fatalism and brutality.  The contemporary figures have to decide whether they have any more clarity about experience than those earlier ones did.  It is frightening when they have to confront similar limitations, but it is even more harrowing when they actually manage to confront them.

Rendell has written a fine and deeply complex novel that will keep you thinking for long time after reading it.

Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)

The Child's Child is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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