Both The Girl Next Door (2014), Ruth Rendell’s penultimate novel and Kingsley Amis’s Booker winning The Old Devils (1986) present a group of married, retired friends reuniting after many years. In both cases, one of the main plotlines examines heterosexual love between widowed and divorced partners that may have felt a passion for each other at a younger age, but never acted upon it. These relationships either effect major changes or are the results of internal re-examination. Characters are reinvigorated because they sense they haven’t time to waste.
Devils is funny and charming and has an edge that still makes me remember it almost thirty years later. Amis may be better known now for his first novel Lucky Jim (1954) and his comic take on the postwar British socialist state and what it meant for both the working and the middle classes. He was the father of Martin Amis, also a comic novelist with one of the most extravagant, baroque styles imaginable while still maintaining a naturalistic setting (best bets: Success 1978, Money 1984, Time’s Arrow 1991). In later life, he turned into a roaring boor of a drunk, but his writing was still sharp and funny.
The Girl Next Door examines a group of late septuagenarians living in contemporary London and its outer suburbs. They’re connected because they spent their childhoods in the same suburb during World War II. A pair of skeletal hands, not from the same person, is found by builders working on a new development. Rendell lets the reader know early who has killed the couple as well as the identity of the female victim. That mystery remains enigmatically in the proverbial back seat because she’s focused instead on showing people looking back over their lives.
They have the sense that sixty years have passed very quickly because lives can be summed up in a few sentences, especially when it’s someone else’s. Things become poignant when some of them either want or are forced to take risks and change their lives. Some succeed and some fail, while set against the shadow of their eventual mortality, a theme more explicitly stated in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori (1959). Rendell’s understated, witty style can somehow render intense grief with kindness and display a gallows humor about a sociopath.