I've been a huge admirer of Ruth Rendell for literally decades, so I was really pleased to be sent a review copy of this, her latest novel. And oh how I wish I could say I loved it. It's not, of course, a bad novel -- how could it be? Rendell writes so beautifully -- I'd be fascinated to hear a real linguist analyse her prose, which manages to be wonderfully simple and clear while simultaneously conveying an extraordinary sense of impending doom. And indeed there is much to admire here.
The central image is unforgettable -- a pair of severed hands enclosed in a biscuit tin and buried in some underground tunnels during WW2. The hands belong to a pair of illicit lovers -- we know this from the start, as we also know the identity of the killer, a particularly unpleasant person, as many of Rendell's villains are. But the action soon shifts to the present day, when we meet the central characters, all now in their late seventies, who we discover to be the very same children who played in those tunnels in the 1940s. This remains the main time-frame of the novel, though it sometimes shifts backwards.
Essentially, though a crime has been committed, and though, once the hands are rediscovered, the police are seeking the perpetrator, this is not really a crime novel. It's much more a novel about the lives of these elderly people, their memories, their past relationships, and the ways in which they interact with each other. And we soon discover that people in their late seventies think and feel pretty much exactly the same as people who are a good deal younger. They feel unsure of themselves. They form new friendships or discover old ones. They fall in love, passionately and physically. Is this a surprise? Not to me, though perhaps it might be to some people. But of course they are also intensely aware of their own mortality, and several of them actually die in the course of the novel.
But what of the girl next door of the title? This is the beautiful Daphne -- still beautiful in her old age -- who was a bit of an outsider to the group of wartime kids, but proves to be central to the mystery in some ultimately very disturbing ways. I can't say more, but there are revelations at the end of the novel which many readers will probably find upsetting.
So this is a bold novel, dealing with issues that are not much talked about. Why, then, am I not more enthusiastic? Well, for reasons that are purely subjective, I'm afraid. I simply could not warm to any of the characters, for a start. I know novels don't have to be full of delightful, admirable people, but it's nice to have at least one person about whom you really care, and I just didn't find one here. Also, I found it terribly depressing to read about these folks messing their lives up in old age just as they had when they were young. But hey, that might just be me.
I imagine The Girl Next Door will be getting some very mixed reviews, though I haven't seen any yet, and I hope, and presume, that Rendell won't be at all bothered by the less positive ones. I also imagine it will sell well to everyone who loves her writing. In fact I don't want to put anyone off, and I'd be delighted to hear from anyone else who has read it and disagrees with me.