I'm having my own small Ruth Rendell fest at the moment -- see my recent review of The Veiled One and the thing I wrote for Shiny Extra. I got interested in Harm Done when I was writing that, as it shows Rendell in her most socially concerned mode. Of course the novel has its fair share of mysteries and murders, but there's much food for thought here too, and overall the novel is very critical of society, or society as it was when the novel was written in 1999. It would be great to say that things have changed since then, but I'm afraid if we did say that, to would probably be to say they have changed for the worse.
The chief theme that runs through the novel is that of what we now call spousal abuse. Wexford's older daughter is working as a volunteer in a safe house for abused women, something which she finds extremely upsetting, as most of her time is spent on the phone, listening to stories of unimaginable horror. By chance, though, Wexford and his team are brought into contact with a woman whose husband regularly subjects her to horrific physical punishment. At first he finds this hard to believe -- the family is wealthy, the husband is extremely pleasant and charming and appears to adore his wife. But when the facts emerge, they are truly terrifying. The reason the police get called in is that the youngest child, a three-year-old, disappears, and they have to investigate what seems at first to be an insoluble mystery.
Added to this, the local estate -- an unpleasant and deprived area -- is in an uproar after a convicted paedophile has been released into the community. Having 'paid his debt to society', he has moved in with his daughter. Old, shrunken, completely bemused by life on the outside, he sits silently all day long and never goes out. But the rebellious elements on the estate are up in arms about his presence, and some very ugly riots take place, one of which results in the death of a police officer. But, as Wexford reflects, how would we feel if a convicted paedophile moved in next door to our children or grandchildren?
It must be said that Rendell takes a very dim view of the estate and its inhabitants. Often drunk, quarrelsome, adulterous, and completely lacking in morals except of a very superficial kind, these people really show a picture of Britain at its worst. Many of them are weak and ill-informed rather than bad, but they are easily led, and the ringleaders have no problem in whipping up a mob mentality.
As for the wife-beating husband, this raises shocking issues too. Wexford's initial disbelief is more than mirrored in the parents of the abused wife, who take the view that she must be doing something to deserve it, and reprimand their grandchildren for lying when they reveal some of the things he has been doing to their mother.
So this is a painful but rewarding book to read. I did find myself ahead of Wexford several times as he seemed a bit slow to guess what was going on, but of course I had more information than he did. A dark novel, but an excellent one.
I love it when people send me suggestions of paintings to put up in this regular slot. Here's one that's just arrived. This is La Liseuse (the Reader), painted in about 1877 by Robert James Gordon (1835-1932). That sofa doesn't look terribly comfortable and the book is very tiny (she must have better eyes than me) but I love the fan and the decoration of the room!
As Ruth Rendell's death was announced just as we were getting our Extra Shiny ready, I decided to put together a brief tribute to this great writer. Take a look to see Five Fascinating Facts of her brilliant and productive life.
We've been working away behind the scenes to bring you our mid-season Extra Shiny. It's live today, with lots of new reviews (helpfully marked *NEW*) in all sections.
Here's a review of a book I really enjoyed -- Effi Briest by the 19th century German novelist Theodor Fontane. Described as ‘one of the great novels of marital relations together with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina’, this is the highly readable, thought-provoking story of Effi, married at just seventeen to a man of forty-four. She is a completely delightful creation -- as I wrote in the review, ' it’s hard to think of a more attractive and loveable heroine'.
Harriet chose a chocolate biscuit. 'I do believe the Archdeacon has been asking you to elope with him!" she declared triumphantly.
'Oh Harriet, how dreadful you are!' said Belinda, unable to help laughing at this monstrous suggestion. 'As if a clergyman, let alone an archdeacon, would do a thing like that!'
'Then he's been telling you that he's very fond of you, and wishes he'd married you instead of Agatha', went on Harriet, gallantly persevering.
'Well hardly that', ventured Belinda, growing a little more confidential, for the Ovaltine had loosened her tongue. 'I mean its a bit late for anything like that, isn't it'.
A good friend introduced me to Barbara Pym's novels in the 1980s, and I fell in love at once. I have come back to them from time to time since then, and they never cease to delight me. Indeed Pym is one of the few novelists I almost don't dare to read in public places, as I'm liable to start chuckling loudly at passages like the one above, from her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle (1950).
So I was delighted to see that a new biography had come out, especially as I'd always intended but never managed to read the 1990 one by her friend and colleague Hazel Holt. I galloped through its 148 pages, and certainly l learned a few things about Pym that I hadn't been properly conscious of before -- her close and loving relationship with her sister Hilary, her long years editing the scholarly journal Africa, and her many passionate attachments to various men throughout her life. She never married, but was evidently very attractive and had many admirers as well as male friends both straight and gay. I also knew that, after the six very successful novels she published between 1950 and 1961, she was unable to get any publisher to take anything on for 18 years. It was an article in the TLS with warm praise for her writing by David Cecil and Philip Larkin that revived her career and she had several years of well deserved success, including a Booker nomination, before her death in 1980 at the age of 67.
Not having read the earlier biography, I'm not able to comment on what, if anything, has been added by Ann Allestree. But in any case I was interested by the way she pointed out the frequently close relationship between Pym's life and her fiction, and to meet the originals of some of the more egregious male characters -- usually archdeacons or academics -- who populate her books. Her love for Jane Austen and for Ivy Compton Burnett, from whom she said she learned a lot about dialogue, come over well here. There are some interesting quotations from her diaries, and from letters to and from her friend Philip Larkin. I liked the accounts of her visits to churches and of the various houses she lived in, both of which were duly visited and described by Allestree. I would have loved to see some photos, many of which are described but not shown.
But I'm afraid I can't praise this book unconditionally. I think it could have been a good book if someone had taken the trouble to copy edit and proof read it. But as it stands, it is in desperate need of some work. The organisation of the material is a little odd and sometimes repetitive, but the most bothersome thing is the problems with the punctuation. This may seem a minor thing to some people, but punctuation (commas etc) are there for a reason -- properly placed, they make sense of what is being said, but if they are badly placed or missing it's hard to understand the argument, and I sometimes found myself having to re-read sentences. Then there's the question of the quotations. These are done very oddly indeed. Sometimes they start with a double quotation mark and end with a single, or fail to end at all. And far too often you can't actually tell if a passage is a quotation or not -- some certainly are, though not marked as such in any way -- or where it begins and ends. There's a curious habit of enclosing the names of characters with either single or double quotation marks, though this tends to come and go. And though there's a Select Bibliography, none of the items listed have any dates. So I was left with the impression of having read a promising first draft, but one that had me itching to get out the red pencil.
I'm really sorry to have to say this. I'm not generally in the habit of writing on here about books I haven't enjoyed, but however this happened (author or publisher) it seemed such a shame. I wish Ann Allestree the best with it, and perhaps there will be readers less fussy than myself. And I'm grateful to The Book Guild for sending me a review copy.
Not just any old man -- this is the great American illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), and this is known, for obvious reasons, as 'Triple Self Portrait'. All Rockwell's liveliness and wit are here, and I love the way he's got some famous examples pinned up on his board.
I've always loved Rockwell and have posted him before on here, so when I was contacted by someone asking me to post a link to a new site promoting his work, I thought I'd do it. It's called Artsy, and here's the link. Looks like it's a work in progress, but it's got some biographical info, and so far just one painting -- this famous one, called 'New Kids in the Neighbourhood':
You may not know this -- why should you? -- but as a teenager I had huge ambitions to become a great Shakespearean actor. I learned famous soliloquies and practiced them in my room. But when I went to drama school I found out that I wasn't actually all that good at it. No regrets, as I've had a great life doing other things. But I was really delighted to get a chance to read and review Great Shakespearean Actors: Burbage to Branagh, by the distinguished Shakespearean scholar Professor Stanley Wells.
Ranging from the Elizabethan period to the present day, this is a fascinating account of the performances of thirty-nine celebrated actors, with lots of lovely illustrations. Pop over to Extra Shiny and have a look!
Actually 'The Travelling Companions', painted in 1862 by the rather curiously named Augustus Leopold Egg (1816-1862). I've always found this a slightly odd painting, with the identical outfits and hats, though I suppose it must show a pair of twins. As you can see from his dates, he died young. He was a friend of Dickens, who described him as "dear gentle little fellow," "always sweet-tempered, humorous, conscientious, thoroughly good, and thoroughly beloved'.
I only just caught up with the news of Ruth Rendell's death on 2 May, and was sad to hear it, but glad that by chance I had read one of her 1980s Wexford novels only a week ago. She was the first contemporary crime novelist I ever read, and I never got tired of her wonderful, often disturbing novels. I thought I'd repost my review of The Veiled One from a few days ago (see below) and am planning to write something about her for Shiny New Books. Meanwhile here's a link to her obituary in the Guardian.
If you were to visit my house and see the piles of books waiting to be read and reviewed, you'd probably think the last thing I needed to do was pick up another one. But that's just what I did a couple of days ago when I happened to be lurking the the vicinity of a shelf of giveaway books. I've always admired Ruth Rendell, though I've tended to gravitate towards her Barbara Vine novels, maybe having the idea that the Wexford ones were a bit more conventional and thus less interesting. But if this one is anything to go by, I couldn't have been more wrong. Yes, it is certainly a police procedural on one level, but what goes on it it is fascinating, or I found it so.
The Veiled One starts with the discovery of a body in a shopping centre car park. Wexford and his second in command Burden start to investigate, but almost at once Wexford is out of the picture, having narrowly escaped with his life after a bomb blew up his daughter's car. So the investigation falls into the hands of Burden. Now, what you need to know about these two men is that they are complete opposites in almost every way. Wexford is literary, intelligent, intuitive, liberal, where Burden is rational, conservative, unimaginative etc etc. I suppose these things are always present in all the Wexford novels, though it's a while since I read any of them, but here they really are the mainspring of what happens in the plot. Left to himself, Burden decides fairly quickly that he knows who the culprit is, and starts an increasingly intensive series of interviews in the attempt to get a confession. But for a start he has got it all completely wrong, and if that wasn't enough, the man concerned is mentally extremely wobbly, and gets pushed further and further over the edge by the process, with ultimately disastrous results.
So, a good deal of what kept me rushing back to the book every time I had a spare moment was the excitement of the plot -- if the prime suspect didn't do it (and Wexford, when he recovers enough, is certain that he didn't), then who did? I thought I'd been very clever when I found myself a step ahead of Wexford on one important clue, but that led me down a blind alley anyway, though I can't explain further, obviously. The denouement took me by surprise, anyway, which was very satisfying. But watching Burden tying himself in knots, pouring scorn on the well-meaning psychotherapist who tries to explain the delicate state of mind of the interviewee, and gradually, too late, coming to understand what transference means and finally, probably, never being able to forgive himself for the disastrous results. On one level, perhaps the contrast between Burden's crassness and Wexford's sensitivity is a bit crudely played out, but I didn't mind.
This novel was published in 1988, and it's stood the test of time extremely well. I've really got to get back to what I've started thinking of as the set books now, but I'll be on the lookout for more Wexfords -- might even actually pay for one.