Ever since I first read this novel last winter, I thought it would be a good choice for a book group. Marge, my “partner in crime” from our days at the library, felt the same. On Sunday, the Literary Ladies proved us right.
I’ve already reviewed The Girl Next Door in this space. As usual, additional insights and questions emerged in the course of the discussion. As two of the three central characters in the novel, Alan and Rosemary Norris came under the greatest scrutiny. We analyzed their motivations, actions, and reactions. There was less probing to be done about the third main character, Michael Winwood, but we all expressed our deep dismay at the pain inflicted on him by his feckless and narcissistic parents. His father John is one of the most genuinely despicable characters I’ve encountered in modern fiction. (In a review in the Evening Standard, Mark Sanderson calls him “a typical Rendell monster.”). The consequences of his cruel behavior toward his son – and even worse, far worse, transgressions – are as follows: After he is widowed (and I won’t tell you how), he remarries twice, the last time to a wealthy woman who dies conveniently and leaves him all her money and possessions. When we meet him, he’s living out his days in luxury at a posh retirement facility.
Rendell seems to be saying, if it’s earthly justice you’re looking for, don’t look here. And possibly, don’t look anywhere. (My mother used to say that people are always demanding justice when they should be begging for mercy. Possibly she gleaned this wisdom from an Old Testament upbringing.)
Marge and I had a pre-meeting discussion of this book at a restaurant located downtown by a lake. It was a beautiful day, so we chose to sit outdoors. We were rewarded by a veritable parade of lively dogs and cute babies. This helped to offset the sometimes grim subject matter we were dealing with. We came up with a list of discussion questions. (I didn’t want to place them directly into the text of this post, as they contain spoilers.)
The premise of the novel involves a group of people who played together as children during the war years. They had made a fortuitous discovery: underground passages that were meant to be the foundations of new houses. But the war had put a temporary halt to all such construction. Meanwhile, these tunnels proved ideal as a gathering place for the neighborhood children.
They felt a need to name their secret hideout. Daphne Jones came up with a term that was acceptable to them all: qanats. Of Persian origin, this word was especially pleasing to the children because it violated the dictum that had been drilled into them at school; namely, that the letter “q” must always be followed by a “u.”
The years pass, decades pass, and builders make a grisly discovery in their old play place. The police gather all the former playmates together in hopes that they can supply some useful information regarding a crime that has only just come to light. This reunion will have fateful consequences, and not only for the newly initiated criminal inquiry.
The head of the investigation is Detective Inspector Colin Quell, a stolid and unimaginative man. He’s genuinely puzzled by the phenomenon of the qanats and at one point poses this question to the group: “When you say you were playing there, what did you play? I mean, there can’t have been much to do in underground passages.” Their collective response:
They looked at Quell pityingly. He spoke from the age of computers and online games, from e-books, DVDs, and CDs, Bluetooth and Skype, smartphones and iPads. They spoke from a distant past when everyone read books and most people had hobbies, made things, played cards and chess, dressed up and played charades, sewed and painted and wrote letters and sent postcards.
Reading that passage now makes me feel sad. It seems that at least as far as childhood is concerned, much has been lost, or at least set side, perhaps forever. Indeed, the whole book is redolent of a Paradise Lost sensibility.
In preparing for this meeting, I revisited The Girl Next Door by means of recorded book. The reader was Ric Jerrom. I was not previously familiar with his work, but I have to say, Mr. Jerrom’s reading of this novel was mesmerizing. It is one of the best audiobooks I have ever listened to.
Although we have lost Ruth Rendell, she has bequeathed to us a rich and remarkable body of work. I for one will be revisiting it for years to come.
This year, the Howard County Library System is marking its seventy-fifth anniversary. As part of the celebration, pictures of area book groups are being taken and gathered together. Here’s our contribution:
Many thanks, Literary Ladies (aka Book Babes), for years of friendship, fellowship, and love of the written word! (Though some were absent, all were present in spirit)