Sunday, December 30, 2012

Can we have another Wexford instead?

Ruth Rendell's novels written under her Barbara Vine pen name are always something of a challenge for me.  Although she's one of my favorite authors, I can rarely finish the Vine books.  The style of them is hard to follow.  There might be frequent references to "the awful event" from page one, which I suppose are designed to reel in the reader, but just serve to exasperate me. The "event" is generally not revealed until the very end of the novel, by which time I've long since ceased to care.  So I was a bit wary when I saw that there is a new Barbara Vine book out, The Child's Child

This book concerns two themes: homosexuality and single motherhood and how the two issues have become more socially acceptable.  There is also the device of a novel-within-a-novel at play here. 

The story begins with college lecturer Grace being given an unpublished novel, The Child's Child, which was written by a fairly well-known deceased author.  The author's son wants her opinion as to whether or not the novel could interest a publisher.  Grace has recently moved into her deceased grandmother's large house with her brother Andrew.  The house is so large that they can live independently of each other if they wish.  Andrew soon moves in his attractive, but somewhat prickly boyfriend James.  Grace puts the novel aside as she works on her thesis, which deals with the idea of illegitimacy and single motherhood in Victorian fiction.  She gets into some rather heated discussions with James, who says that male homosexuals faced a much more difficult life during that time, as homosexuality was illegal and anyone found guilty of the crime could be sentenced to hard labor. 

While society may have softened its views on both homosexuality and single motherhood in modern times, James and Andrew experience the continuing hostility that gay men face when they witness one of their friends being murdered as they leave a gay club one evening.  They are both potential witnesses at the trial, a possibility which causes James to become severely depressed.  In this state, he and Grace experience a new dimension to their relationship.

At this point, the modern story takes a pause while we are given the full text of the novel "The Child's Child" which Grace has agreed to read.  This story begins in 1929.  John is a teacher at a school in London, and is involved in a highly passionate, but illegal relationship with the flighty Bertie.  He decides to move to a rural school to get away from the temptations of London, and plans to devote himself to a life of celibacy.  A visit home to his parents at this time reveals that his teen aged sister, Maud, is pregnant and unmarried.  Her horrified parents plan to send her to a home for unwed mothers and have the baby adopted.  John quickly takes charge and proposes a solution that will change every one's lives.

The Child's Child part of the book is the main chunk of the story.  None of the characters is particularly likable:  the ungrateful, selfish Maud; the opportunistic, violent Bertie; and the spineless, weak John.  A murder happens, but most people seem rather indifferent to it.  Eventually, the crime is solved, and things go on pretty much as before.  Undeserving people are rewarded and unreasonable demands are inexplicably met without much resistance. 

We eventually swing back to the modern story where there is a bit of unrealistic drama and an ending that sort of fizzles out.  It is interesting how the social problems are contrasted between the modern and distant characters.  A single woman becoming pregnant in 1929, which was seen as the end of the world, is today accepted as the norm.  States are passing same sex marriage laws, when homosexuality was a crime in Britain until, unbelievably, 1967.  The book does make the reader marvel at the societal changes that have taken place over the last century, but the characters in the book are not very likable, either in the present or the past.  There's not really anyone to root for.

On the bright side, I did manage to get through this Barbara Vine novel, so perhaps I'm mellowing in my old age!

Final Verdict for The Child's Child:   Three Gherkins, for being a thought-provoking look at modern social changes

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