I was waiting for something – anything! – to fire me up again, in service to Books to the Ceiling. This did it:
In the waning years of World War Two, a group of children discover a series of tunnels near their neighborhood. Originally intended as part of a new housing development, they lay abandoned in the earth when the onset of war delayed the projected buildings.
The children find these subterranean passages to be ideal places to play. Far from the prying eyes of adults, they construct their own world there. One of the girls rather mysteriously dubs the tunnels ‘qanats.’ A term of Middle Eastern origin denoting “a series of well-like vertical shafts, connected by gently sloping tunnels,” qanats is a lovely word, one that effortlessly breaks the ironclad rule that decrees that the letter q must always be followed by a u.
Eventually the children are chased out of the tunnels and banished from playing there by John Winwood the father of one their number, Michael. In those days, one of them later reflected, children did as they were told by the adults in their world. None of them ever went back.
The years passed and they grew up, and away from one other. Decades pass. Then, from deep inside their old hiding place, an ugly secret is disgorged, and they are once again thrown together. It proves to be highly combustible reunion.
The Girl Next Door contains a love story mesmerizing in its intensity, and also the most affecting description of a cruel and loveless childhood that I’ve encountered outside of Charles Dickens. (And yes, I am putting Ruth Rendell in that rarefied company.)
More than anything, this novel is about old age and its inevitable mixture of dread and hope, fragility and strength, anger and passivity, the frustration of feeling outdated and irrelevant at war with an equally defiant determination not to care, sadness, resignation, acceptance – and the strange and unexpected apparition of what I would call a kind of grace.
I was gripped by the whole scenario, from beginning to end.
Here is the meditation of one character who is forced, by circumstances beyond her control, into a profound and essential change:
Now Alan’s gone, said Rosemary to herself, I don’t much care. I did at first but now I don’t. That’s how it is with me. Calm, at peace, thinking ahead to all the clothes she would be able to make uninterruptedly, she began to pin the velvet pieces together. Tomorrow she would go to the shop which had reopened when knitting became fashionable again two or three years ago and buy enough wool to make herself a twinset. Something for the new baby too? I don’t think so. Freya wouldn’t appreciate it, so why bother?
Why do anything at all I don’t enjoy? I won’t. That’s how it is for me now.
One caveat: the cast of characters is rather large, and you may initially have trouble separating out the various strands of the narrative. Don’t worry; they’ll fall into place fairly quickly.
In an article in the London Evening Standard, Mark Sanderson declares The Girl Next Door to be equal in greatness to Stanley and the Women by Kingsley Amis and Memento Mori by Muriel Spark: “Rendell’s novels, for all their aberrations, establish a sense of order that is deeply satisfying.” How true. I cherish those ‘aberrations’ as much as I appreciate – deeply – the underlying sense of order. Well put, Mr. Sanderson.
As i began reading this novel, I was reminded of this author’s A Fatal Inversion, which she wrote under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. My first thought was – oh, surely, this won’t be that good. Ah, but it was.
Well done – very well done indeed, Baroness Rendell of Babergh.