Friday, May 24, 2013

Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell): The Child’s Child

     The Child’s Child has been rumored to be the last novel Ruth Rendell will write as Barbara Vine.  If so, it’s been a great run since 1987, during which Vine has won major mystery awards and probably should have been nominated for or won
the Booker.  This latest is not on the level of A Fatal Inversion, Anna’s Book or the great A Dark Adapted Eye, one of the best novels of the past fifty years regardless of genre.  

Maud and John?

     This latest is a historical novel that has a contemporary framing device, wherein a Ph.D. candidate in English examining unwed mothers in Victorian literature is given a privately published novel by an earlier, noted writer.  This is actually The Child’s Child and its plot deals with a teenaged, unwed mother, her gay older brother and their plan to be as ‘normal’ as possible and retain a modicum of middle-class respectability.  It covers the period from 1929 – 1950, which has figured in some of Vine’s other novels.  

     In Anna’s Book, Rendell included a diary in the voice of a Danish woman from the early 20th century and in The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, she wrote fragments of an unpublished novel by a male writer of an earlier generation within the book.  Actually, it felt like 
Henry Green
it might have been something newly discovered by Robertson Davies or William Cooper.  The Child’s Child goes even further by presenting a complete faux neglected work.  That earlier writer might be a stand-in for Henry Green since he was a well-regarded writer who was not very commercially popular of that era.  

Ruth Rendell

     Rendell writes the older book in an earlier style of British serious fiction from the contemporary framing story, which is more of a thriller.  Not only is the sentence structure and syntax different, but more obviously so is the handling of an unwed single mother and her gay brother.  The Ph.D. candidate finds herself in the same situation as Maud in the faux older novel.  Though the contrast in social mores is fascinating and the sense that Victorian morality really didn’t evaporate from British life until the 1970s, the book’s flaw is that the main characters in The Child’s Child aren’t very sympathetic.  

     Maud is so relentlessly selfish and lazy that she subverts the unwed mother stereotype of the 19th century novel that is filled with guilt and proves her worthiness through grit and determination. Her older brother, John, might seem selfless, but it’s based on his fear.  He doesn’t bother to pay much attention to Maud’s little daughter.  Their narcissism and need for self-protection is a dry, dark joke.  A number of the secondary characters demonstrate intelligence and wit.  The framing story focuses both on a gay bashing and its legal aftermath and the betrayal of a brother by a sister.  The framing story is short, but more immediate politically and also more entertaining.

No comments: