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It has been four years since Ruth Rendell published her last novel as Barbara Vine (THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT, 2008). The books published as Barbara Vines are generally seen to fall more in the category of "psychological suspense" than straight detection, but over her long career Rendells and Vines have tended to converge to some degree.
Ruth Rendell clearly views the Vine novels as significantly different from those appearing under her own name, though the differences (except for the Wexford police novels) have been increasingly difficult to discern in recent years. Val McDermid makes the excellent point that "these novels of psychological suspense have the recurring theme of the long shadows cast by the past." And so it is in the present example, as THE CHILD'S CHILD is really two short novels under one roof, so to speak - one set in London in 2011, the other in a village in Devon in the 1930s. (You'd best avoid reading the flap copy as it tends seriously to confuse the chronology.) Though we begin in the present, the heart of the narrative, the one that takes over the book, is the historical novel, which details the lives and fates of a brother and sister who, for reasons that seem to them sound at the time, are living together, presenting themselves to the village as husband and wife.
They believe themselves forced into this peculiar arrangement because they have each transgressed a social prohibition - the brother, John Goodwin, aged twenty-two, is gay, or as he would put it, a "Uranian," a fact that utterly horrifies him. John has been having an affair with an uneducated man slightly older than himself and far less ridden with guilt. To get away from what he believes is hopeless temptation, he takes a job teaching school in Devon, where he imagines he will be able to lead a wholly celibate life, since rural England can hardly be populated by men such as himself and Bertie. Meanwhile, his sister Maud is, as they used to say, in trouble. A couple of half-aware couplings, prompted more by curiosity than passion, and she finds herself pregnant at fifteen. When her condition finally comes to light, she is rejected out of hand by her father and threatened with incarceration in a Methodist home for unwed mothers, followed by the immediate adoption of the child. With one small deception, John can make an honest woman of Maud (at least as far as the public is concerned) and immunize himself against his own homosexual tendencies.
How well this particular stratagem works out is the substance of a privately-printed novel, The Child's Child, written by a well-known novelist but deemed unpublishable in 1951 due to its homosexual content. In London in 2011, Grace Easton, a post-graduate student in English and writing a thesis on the unwed mother in literature, keeps meaning to get around to reading it, but not until she, too, is unmarried and pregnant does she actually manage the task. Her circumstances and those of Maud in the novel are parallel in more than one way, as Grace is sharing a house with her brother Andrew and his lover, James Derain. Parallel, but not identical, given the enormous change in social attitudes between the 1930s and the present day.
But Rendell hardly provides us with a self-congratulatory essay on the bad old days. What interests her particularly is the way in which the ferociously judgmental sexual attitudes of the thirties shaped not simply what happens to her characters but how they define themselves. Thus John remains in a hideously destructive relationship largely because he cannot so much as imagine a better one. Maud, who has our initial sympathies for her vigorous refusal to give up her child, never becomes the heroine of independent female identity we hope she will and as she might have done in some of the novels Grace is studying. Like John, her inability to imagine a way of being outside of the constraints of the social norms dooms her and will cast its shadow over her daughter's life as well.
But what of the present moment? THE CHILD'S CHILD is a novel, not a sociology textbook, and in the relatively brief modern section, Rendell's post-modern ironic sensibility is in evidence. All three of the modern characters appear free to please themselves regarding their sexual identities and styles of life. But the motiveless malignity of violence shapes their lives as it did Maud and John's. Biology may not quite be destiny, but it's still a force to be reckoned with. Though modern London provides Grace, Andrew, and James with freedoms that Maud and John could not even dream about, they are not free of all constraints and we suspect that the detente reached at the end of the novel will only be temporary.
Ruth Rendell, whether writing under her own name or as Barbara Vine, remains among the most consistently interesting and provocative novelists at work in English today. Note, no qualifier on the word novelist - not merely the most brilliant crime novelist, but novelist, period. Someday, perhaps, she will get the literary critical attention she deserves, but happily, there's no reason to wait to read her until she gets the Booker - read her now.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, November 2012
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