Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Child's Child

I'm afraid that The Child's Child will be the last book Ruth Rendell writes under her Barbara Vine pseudonym.  It's not quite as good as The Birthday Present, but Rendell was in peak form for about two-thirds of the novel.  Perhaps it would have joined The Birthday Present and A Dark Adapted Eye among her best if it had been published as a novella.

I say that because The Child's Child feels like a novella with 85 pages of coincidence-laden framework extending the work to novel length.  Ph.D. candidate Grace Easton and her brother Andrew inherited a sprawling house on the outskirts of London from their grandmother.  Instead of selling it and  sharing the proceeds, they decide to divide the house and live together-but-not-together, and it works well until Andrew's partner James Derain moves in.  James's stability, never a sure thing, degerates when the two men witness the gay-bashing death of an acquaintance of theirs, and then a somewhat unbelievable series of events leads to Andrew and James moving out, leaving Grace, pregnant and working on a Ph.D dissertation analyzing the treatment of unwed mothers in 19th Century literature, alone in the suburban mansion.  One night, she reads the manuscript a family friend gave her.

The Child's Child couldn't be published when it was written in the 1950s.  Martin Greenwell based Maud Goodwin on a neighbor, a woman who'd gotten pregnant at 15 and who also happened to be James Derwin's great-grandmother.  Maude's brother John, who was gay at a time when it was illegal, "saved" Maude by moving away with her and pretending to be her husband.  One evening, John explained to Maude why he so willingly moved away with her, but she was a puritan-leaning as the family they'd left.  Long before John disappeared, Maude retreated into a icy shell, proud and protective of her daughter. There's not much of a mystery - we know John's fate, even if the police take several months to figure it out - but Rendell wrote a compelling story about a woman who trapped herself in a facade of respectability.  While I found the modern-day section of The Child's Child enjoyable, it really didn't add anything to the book.

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