“O God, that one might read the book of fate…” – The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine

May 3, 2009 at 2:00 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

b-day ruthrendell5 I just finished The Birthday Present by Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine. Did I love it? Absolutely. Fact is,  where I’m concerned,  Baroness Rendell of Babergh can do no wrong.

Yes, I know, that does not exactly sound like a measured critical assessment. The novel is not without  flaws, but they are minor, in my view, compared with its pleasures. Even as I write this, I am thinking about the appropriateness of that word. Those of us who are devoted to Rendell’s works know that the “pleasure” of reading her rarely includes happy, heartwarming moments. In fact, if I had to choose a single word that, more often than not, embodies the experience, I would choose…dread.

Quite likely, a goodly part of the catharsis afforded by reading this kind of book is that the dread, while real enough, is felt on behalf of someone else and not oneself. In the case of The Birthday Present, that someone else is Ivor Tesham, charismatic rising star in the political firmament and incorrigible womanizer, a man who makes his own rules and sees no reason why everyone else shouldn’t abide by them.

The eponymous birthday present consists of a bit of sadomasochistic theater involving Ivor’s mistress of the moment, Hebe Furnall. The planned  scenario goes horribly awry. If the truth about what actually happened and who was responsible should come to light, Ivor Tesham’s extremely promising career in public life would almost  certainly be derailed. He is therefore  obliged ever after to spend a great deal of time looking anxiously over his shoulder, awaiting the public revelation that will destroy him:

“‘I used to feel… like that character in Shakespeare who says he’d like to read the book of fate, so that I could have some idea of what would happen next week, even next day.’

[The exact quotation, which appears in the title of this post, comes from Henry IV, Part II.]

While Ivor waits, he hashes out possible outcomes with his sister Iris and her husband Rob, who is one of the novel’s two narrators. Rob is Ivor’s opposite: domestic and uxorious where Ivor is mercurial and promiscuous – in his private life, that is. Ivor’s public persona capitalizes on his good looks and dynamism, making him highly attractive to constituents, fellow office holders  – and beautiful women.

Many of us have, at one time or another, had an Ivor Tesham in our lives: a cheerfully amoral person who makes us feel as though we are bit players in the drama of his or her life. Often we are fascinated by these individuals, even while they repel us. That is precisely how I felt about Ivor. I was dying to know what the outcome of his misadventure would be. It was hard to wishing him well, but oddly, it was even harder to wish him ill. In my opinion, he is one of Rendell’s most perversely intriguing creations – this, from an author who excels in depicting perversity!

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In the post just prior to this one, I noted the homage paid by author Andrea Camilleri to the Swedish (husband and wife) crime writing team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. In The Birthday Present, Ruth Rendell similarly tips her hat  to yet another master of crime fiction. On a night when events are veering towards a crisis and sleep is not possible, Rob goes  downstairs and picks up the book he has been reading:  “I have often thought about English gentlemen in literature and the recourse to which certain authors drive them, and here in this Dorothy L. Sayers novel was a classic example of the very thing.”

The book? bellona The passage that Rendell goes on to quote makes the novel’s relevance to Ivor’s desperate situation only too clear.

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This past February, a post about Ruth Rendell written by Imogen Russell Williams appeared on the Books Blog of the Guardian newspaper. In it, Williams opined that Rendell’s writing was hopelessly dated and that she would do well to set her fiction back in the 1960’s or 1970’s, eras in which she is apparently more at home. Interestingly, a year and a half earlier, a post by Mark SaFranko in of praise of Rendell appeared on the same blog. Both make for provocative reading…

P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, and a most excellent feline!

P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, and a most excellent feline!

6 Comments

  1. Teresa said,

    Thanks for reviewing this. I plan to read it at some point and have been wondering what people are thinking of it. This sounds like it has everything I love too see in a Barbara Vine novel–plus a Sayers reference! Hooray!

  2. Lawrence Block, sympathetic villains, and Great Books Lists « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] seething mind and then write about it with complete conviction, Lasdun puts me in mind of the great Ruth Rendell. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)A great new book that might make you slightly […]

  3. Best books of 2009: my own favorites « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] To Hurt by James Lasdun Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine The Northern Clemency by Philip […]

  4. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Alstyne series– Julia Spencer-Fleming The Armand Gamache series – Louise Penny Minotaur and  The Birthday Present – Barbara Vine Seven Lies – James Lasdun Once a Biker – Peter Turnbull Water Like a Stone – […]

  5. Marine Paint said,

    when i was a kid, i love to receive an assortment of birthday presents like teddy bears and mechanical toys ~*.

  6. machines à sous gratuites casino 770 said,

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