Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Child's Child - Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine


The Child’s Child
, published in 2012, was the last novel Ruth Rendell wrote under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. After that, she would write only one Inspector Wexford novel and two standalones before her death at age 85 in 2015. One of the most interesting things about The Child’s Child is that it is presented as a “novel-within-a-novel,” a construction that readers only rarely encounter. The book opens in the present (2011) and transitions to a separate novel that begins in 1929 before finally returning to its original characters and plot. The 1929 novel, in fact, accounts for roughly two-thirds of the total length of The Child’s Child.


The novel begins just after brother and sister Andrew and Grace Easton have inherited their grandmother’s large London home. Andrew and Grace surprise everyone when they decide to live together in the home rather than selling the valuable property and splitting the proceeds between them. They divide the house right down the middle, with one of them taking possession of the left side, the other the right side, while sharing the kitchen between them. And for a while everything goes well. Then, Andrew decides to move his boyfriend James, a handsome novelist, into his side of the house. The animosity between James and Grace is immediately obvious, but after the two men witness the brutal beating death of a friend of theirs outside a London nightclub and James becomes needy and fragile, the relationship between Grace and her brother’s boyfriend becomes closer…and closer. 


Now, not wanting to face her brother with the truth, Grace escapes into an unpublished manuscript from 1951 called The Child’s Child that she has promised to read as a favor to a friend. The novel, even though it was written by a respected author, has never been published because its sexual depictions were considered to be too frank for respectable 1950s readers. The book, a story about John and Maud, two siblings who find themselves in a situation somewhat similar to the one that Andrew and Grace are now in, is an easy one for Grace to lose herself in. She can only hope that her story doesn’t end like the one in The Child’s Child.


Bottom Line: The unusual structure of The Child’s Child caught me my surprise, and at first, I was irritated at so drastically having to shift gears a third of the way into the book. But just a dozen or so pages into the “new” novel, I was intrigued by the plot and its similarity to what I had already read. In fact, I was even a little disappointed when that section of The Child’s Child ended and it was time to pick back up with the original characters and plot. Rendell does a remarkable job here, I think, of capturing the tone of an older novel trying to push the limits of what was acceptable at the time it was written, so the two plots, despite their similarities, are presented very differently. 


Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine

12 comments:

  1. Rendell really was an amazing writer. Many years ago, too many for me to remember clearly, I read several of her early Barbara Vine novels. The only thing that I can really remember about them now is that I enjoyed them at the time.

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    1. She is exceptional, Dorothy, beyond a doubt. I've read almost 50 of her novels and some, of course, have been better than others, but she set such a high standard for herself that's not surprising at all. She's one of my forever favorites.

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  2. I always think it's strange how we resist when the swap happens in this kind of novel and then end up liking the alternate story more than the original. Not that I've read many like that, I have to say. She was such a talented writer and I plan to read more of her work at some stage.

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    1. It's funny how that happens, Cath. I found myself immersed in the "1929" novel only a few pages into it and hardly thought about the set-up again until I finished reading it. It was equally jarring to have to try to get back into the modern world and characters, but that part makes up less than 20 of the book's final pages.

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  3. Rendell is one of those authors you only tend to read good things about. I need to read some more of her stuff - it's been years. This one has me curious.

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    1. This one is not typical of most of her work because she almost always worked in a modern setting, but she proved how talented she was, I think, by so closely mimicking an old fashioned style for her 1950s novel...even though the novel itself was supposed to be ahead of its time and unpublishable for that reason.

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  4. Huh. Sounds like an interesting story structure. Something similar happened in a book I read not long ago. The shift threw me off, but once I got used to it, it worked well. It did throw me for a loop, though!

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    1. It does slow you down for a few minutes of reading, but Rendell really pulls off the trick in this one. It's akin to those novels that use alternating flashbacks to or from the present but she even manages to make you feel as if you are reading the work of two separate writers.

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  5. That novel-within-a-novel plot device doesn't always work in books, probably because those writers aren't as good as Rendell at doing it.

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    1. She really did master it here, Lark. It's not a construction I would want to read a whole lot, but it worked almost perfectly in this one.

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  6. I read both Rendell and Vine books years ago, maybe I should revisit some of them!

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  7. From what I can tell from my tweet about this one, it is a surprisingly popular novel of Rendell's. It is very pro-feminist and gay, though, and I'm betting it's more popular today than even when first published.

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