I rarely buy books at full price, preferring instead to trawl the charity shops or get them from bookmooch or buy them used on Amazon or abe. Tightfisted? Maybe. But when I travel, all that goes out of the window and I more or less have to buy something at the airport, even if I have already weighed my case down already with a load of exciting books. Why that is I cannot say. Last week I went to France for a few days, and this was the result -- the most recent Ruth Rendell. I have blogged about her books a few times and have always been a huge fan, so was looking forward to getting into this new one.
I was under the impression for a long time that when Rendell wrote under her own name it would be an Inspector Wexford novel, and if it was not a Wexford novel she would publish as Barbara Vine. But obviously that's not true as Wexford is not in this one.
Primarily this is the story of Ismay Sealand, an attractive, intelligent young woman, who lives in a nice house in Clapham where she shares a flat with her younger sister Heather. Downstairs live her schizophrenic mother, who sits all day with her ear glued to the radio except when she is haranguing all and sundry with quotations from the Book of Revelations, and her long-suffering aunt Pam, still attractive in her mid-fifties but despairing of finding a happy relationship. Ismay is in love with a young lawyer, Andrew, who she hopes will soon move in, and marry her in due course. Heather, much less obviously attractive, has a new boyfriend, Edmund, and soon they are engaged. Here, though, is a huge problem, as far as Ismay is concerned. Many years ago, when she and Heather were in their mid-teens, their stepfather Guy was found drowned in the bath, and Ismay has always been almost certain that Heather was responsible for his murder, though this has never been discussed or even mentioned within the family. But, knowing that Heather had witnessed Guy kissing her in an openly sexual way, she has always assumed that she killed Guy to protect her. So she is afraid that if Heather marries she may do something similar again, perhaps to protect one of her own children. But to tell Edmund, or even to confront Heather, seems overwhelming and impossible. Then Ismay's own troubles begin, as Andrew becomes increasingly absent and finally admits to having a new girlfriend, and everything becomes unbelievably painful and complicated.
As always in Rendell's novels there is an extraordinary range of secondary characters, all in one way or another damaged and twisted. The terrifyingly chirpy Marion, with her brightly dyed red hair and her habit of skipping and dancing everywhere, is completely devoid of any moral sense and devotes her life to deceit, petty crime and the planning of murder. Her brother Fowler, a professional beggar, will imbibe anything alcoholic or medicinal which is likely to get him stoned, but though almost as amoral as his sister is considerably more intelligent. Edmund's mother Irene has spent her entire life bullying and emotionally blackmailing her son with constant and entirely invented illnesses. Eva Simber, Andrew's childlike new girlfriend, has a mind that is literally empty of anything apart from her appearance and her possessions, all paid for by her wealthy father. As for Pam's new lover, met on a 'romantic dating walk' in Epping Forest....
Of course all these people's lives intersect, sometimes in quite surprising but always convincing ways. And yes, there is a twist at the end, though I have to say that the ending was, for me, rather less satisfactory than I usually associate with Rendell. Everything is certainly tied up and sorted out, everyone more or less gets what they deserve or at least what they want, which is not necessarily the same thing. But I was left feeling slightly disappointed by the final denouement, though I am not of course going to say what that was. Despite this, however, I was completely gripped by the novel and once again astonished by Rendell's extraordinary ability to create so much tension and menace in such a wonderfully understated way.