The Water’s Lovely by Ruth Rendell

August 6, 2007 at 12:43 pm (Mystery fiction)

water.jpg ruth_narrowweb__300x4260.jpg At the center of Rendell’s latest novel of psychological suspense are two sisters, Ismay and Heather Sealand. As the story begins, they have already lost their father; their mother Beatrix, still relatively young, has remarried. Her second husband, Guy Rolland, is a genial predator and the worst sort of man to have brought into a household containing two young daughters.

Some years later, Guy is laid low by a flu-like illness and though still in a weakened state, is gradually recovering. Ismay and Beatrix come home from a shopping trip and are confronted by the sight of thirteen-year-old Heather, her dress and shoes soaking wet, descending the stairs in a kind of trance. “You’d better come,” she tells them. Upstairs in the bathroom a terrible sight awaits them: Guy, floating in the bathtub, dead. Beatrix calls the police, and when they get there, she and Ismay are ready with a cover story: Heather had been out shopping with them, and the three of them, on returning home, had found Guy as the police now saw him. The deception works; Guy’s death is ruled an accident. Neither Beatrix nor Ismay ever asks Heather what really transpired in their absence. For Ismay, the question nags and torments as she and Heather grow into young womanhood. Meanwhile, Beatrix retreats into insanity, spending her days and nights hunched over her handbag with her ear pressed against a radio that is barely audible. She has become yet another of Rendell’s horribly damaged grotesques.

Yet her daughters remain devoted to her, keeping her at home and caring for her with the help of her sister, their Aunt Pamela. This is the situation as the novel opens. Ismay and Heather are likewise devoted to each other, this despite being drastically different not only physically but also temperamentally and emotionally. Ismay has acquired a boyfriend named Andrew Campbell-Sledge. He is self-centered and inconstant, but no matter; she loves him “with a love that was more than love.” For her part, Heather, who never expected to have any sort of meaningful relationship with a man, starts going out with Edmund, a nurse at the hospice where she works. Edmund is a thoroughly decent and caring individual, and soon, he and Heather are deeply in love. But it is a different kind of love altogether than what Ismay is experiencing with Andrew – it is a “mighty fortress” kind of love, solid and built to withstand blows. Which turns out to be just as well…

While all this is going on, various minor characters appear in the narrative, mainly for the purpose of causing trouble. Chief among these is Marion Melville, a type who operates with a cheerful malevolence that reminded me of Joan Smith in A Judgement in Stone.

I have heard Rendell’s writing style describes as detached and clinical. I remember years ago when I read Therese Raquin by Emile Zola that his style was describes in a similar way and given the name “naturalism.” I understood the term to signify a sort of extreme realism, in which the author places the characters under the microscope of his or her scrutiny and simply reports on the various types of Hell they sink into and flail about desperately to escape from. Is this in fact what Rendell does in her fiction? Yes, to varying degrees, although the technique is not as evident in the Wexford and Barbara Vine books as it is in novels of psychological suspense like this one.

If memory serves me correctly (and it doesn’t always), there was a deficit of likable characters in Therese Raquin. This is not the case in The Water’s Lovely. I liked the Sealand sisters and Pamela very much, and I particularly liked Edmund. He is a person of rock solid integrity who is at the same time a model of patience, compassion and loyalty. Too good to be true? Not at all – he comes across as very true. Heather is deeply lucky to have found him, and she knows it. On the other hand, there is present the usual quota of awful people that invariably populate Rendell’s fiction. Sometimes you know at once that they are awful; at other times, they don’t seem so at first but reveal gradually their true and appalling selves. One of the great strengths Ruth Rendell possesses as a novelist is the ability to allow her characters to do this; there is no commentary by an omniscient author coaching you as to what your reaction to these characters should be. There is no need; you can form an accurate judgment of these people by their words and actions, just as you do in real life.

Back to the characters you like (or at least, that I liked): the more you care about them, obviously, the more you are at the mercy of the author’s machinations. (Interestingly enough, the author can be subject to the same anxieties as the reader. In a BBC interview several years ago, Rendell stated that she became very attached to the Coverdale family in A Judgement in Stone and therefore was genuinely agitated when contemplating their fate. She nevertheless felt that in order to stay true to the novel’s intent, she was powerless to alter their destiny.) I have to say that as I was reading this book, my sense of dread mounted to a degree that I found almost intolerable. I couldn’t help saying to myself, okay, I am riveted, but am I enjoying myself? Still, when I finished the book late last night, I came downstairs and held it up to my husband and said simply: “A masterpiece.”


  1. Pauline Cohen said,


    Re: The Water’s Lovely
    I agree! I stayed up all last night and this morning reading it . I had to finish it fast as I am leaving for the UK later today and the book needs to go back to the libary! There are so many things I want to discuss about the book . I do agree that the Marion and the Joan Smith characters had a certain similarity, and I was thinking that as I read the book. I have to go to the airport now.


  2. Weekend Miscellany III « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] tsunami as a plot device in two recent works of fiction: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri and The Water’s Lovely by Ruth Rendell. In an interesting instance of synchronicity, I encountered yet another mention of […]

  3. The Miracle at Speedy Motors - and the (sort of) miracle at the Central Library « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] is a real challenge, as she’s well up on most of the luminaries in the field: Reginald Hill, Ruth Rendell, Peter Robinson, et. al. She hadn’t read John Harvey for a while, so I urged to try his […]

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