Over the years, my devotion to the works of Ruth Rendell has steadily increased. She is one of the few writers who never disappoint – or, almost never….
Perhaps “disappointed” is not the right term to describe my feelings about The Child’s Child. Certain aspects of the novel were very impressive. Rendell plunges fearlessly into challenging territory; namely, homosexual love and motherhood outside of marriage. Her characters are blunt and unflinching when discussing these sensitive subjects; their clashes come across as real and convincingly abrasive.
Grace Easton is a university lecturer in literature and a candidate for a PhD . As the novel begins, she and her brother Andrew have just inherited Dinmont House, a spacious London dwelling, from their grandmother. Rather than sell it, they decided not only to keep it but to move in and live there. At the time, both are unattached, but soon Andrew becomes seriously involved with James Derain – so seriously that there’s a very real prospect of Andrew’s bringing his lover to live with him – with them – at Dinmont House. What makes this a dicey proposition is that Grace and James have taken an instant dislike to each other. Their animosity grew out of a conversation about the pain inflicted on two groups of individuals who have suffered opprobrium throughout history: unmarried mothers and homosexuals. Who has had to endure the most agony? The conversation became heated. Grace retreated slightly, in an effort to cool things down, but James wasn’t having any of it. (It’s a fascinating argument; you can feel the heat emanating from both parties as James, unyielding and indignant, continues to up the ante.)
The atmosphere at Dinmont House, initially so pleasant, has been poisoned, at least for Grace, through whose point of view we’re following these developments. In light of this disturbing change, what happens next is all the more unexpected and complicates matters enormously.
Have I whet your appetite? Well, The Child’s Child is nothing if not a page turner. This, despite the fact that Vine/Rendell inserts a book within a book smack in the middle of the story of the Eastons at Dinmont House. This second narrative is purported to be by an early twentieth century writer named Martin Greenwell. Though never published, Greenwell’s novel had been privately printed. Grace is avid to get hold of it, as its themes are relevant to the subject matter of her doctoral thesis. Toby Greenwell, the author’s son and heir, has agreed to lend the book to her.
As she settles down to read it, we settle down beside her. The title of Greenwell’s novel is The Child’s Child, and its content proves strangely relevant not just to Grace’s academic work but also to her life, and to the lives of Andrew and James as well. And one thing soon becomes apparent: The Child’s Child could never have been published in Britain, in the early part of the twentieth century.
Two aspects of The Child’s Child have appeared in previous works by Rendell. Writing as Barbara Vine, she used the device of the novel within a novel equally effectively in Anna’s Book (1993). Again as Barbara Vine, she explored various facets of homosexual love in No Night Is Too Long (1994). What I haven’t encountered before, in my three decades of reading and loving this author, is writing that at least at certain times, seems curiously flat – almost, in some instances, downright awkward. For example: “One thing Maud’s mother had never told her was where babies came from, but Maud was already anxious to keep her daughter aloof from the dangers of men’s company so gave her some limited sex education.” It’s a clumsy locution rather than an egregious one, and it could easily have been smoothed out, perhaps as follows: “….Maud, already anxious to keep her daughter aloof from the danger of men’s company, had given her some limited sex education.”
There were several similar instances. A minor character is introduced as Enid, only to become Edith later in the same paragraph. Now, it’s easy to see how this could happen. But it seems to me that someone – the author, a proofreader, or an editor – should have caught the error.
I could not help but wonder if the desire to move the plot along at all due speed took precedence over the desire to write eloquently, with beautifully crafted sentences flowing one into the other.
It’s not that I found a great deal of this kind of thing. It’s just that I am not accustomed to finding it at all in the prose of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine. Did it spoil the book for me? Not really – not at all, in fact. Both stories were sufficiently compelling that in my eagerness to learn the fates of the respective characters, I was able to overlook a few infelicities.
And there’s more than enough exceptional writing here to act as antidote. Grace’s thesis concerns the portrayal of single mothers in the classics of literature. As she gets deeper into her subject, her empathy for these women deepens accordingly:
So I went to bed, thinking as I often did about how these women felt when they knew they were pregnant, the disbelief, the realisation, the horror, shame, fear, and wish for death.
Later, Grace observes that “One single act of sex can have a profound effect on one’s life….” This time she’s not thinking only of other men and women, but of herself as well.
To sum up, I do recommend A Child’s Child, despite some problems with the writing. I guess that for me the bottom line is that even when she’s not at her absolute best, Ruth Rendell outdistances the competition by a substantial margin. And one thing I particularly appreciate about this novel is that it’s actually about something other than the arranging of characters in entertaining scenarios. Rendell deals with difficult issues in an unflinching manner that I find entirely admirable as well as completely convincing.
It is my feeling that the masterpiece among the Vine novels is A Fatal Inversion; for the greatest of the non series novels written as Ruth Rendell, I’d choose A Judgement in Stone. As for the Wexfords, I have trouble deciding. She’s such a master of the procedural; they’re all, in varying degrees, excellent.