Thursday, 11 March 2010

The Minotaur


I’ve often spoken and written of my admiration for the work of Ruth Rendell, both the books published under her own name and as Barbara Vine. I’ve now caught up with The Minotaur, a Vine book published in 2005, and found much in it to admire, although I must also confess to some reservations.

After a very short opening set in the present day, the bulk of the story is set in the past, when a young Swedish girl, Kerstin Kvist (who narrates the story), comes to England to be closer to her boyfriend, and takes up a job in rural Essex at Lydstep Old Hall, home to the dysfunctional Cosway family. Her duties involve looking after John Cosway, who behaves strangely and is kept on medication at the behest of his domineering mother. There are also four Cosway sisters, three of whom compete in different ways for the attention of a feckless painter who comes to live in the village.

We know that Something Terrible Will Happen, because Kerstin tells us so. Again and again. The relentless foreshadowing, which I mentioned in relation to another recent Rendell, The Birthday Present, rather got on my nerves, I’m afraid. I also found the characters unlikeable (this is not unusual with Rendell/Vine) and thought it difficult to understand why clever Kerstin couldn’t bring herself to leave and get a better job.

On the plus side, the atmosphere of the decaying Hall is marvellously evoked. Above all, there is a fascinating library, which contains a labyrinth of bookshelves – a truly memorable image. Indeed, the title of the book and the extraordinary nature of the labyrinth made me think it would play an even greater part in the story than proved to be the case. There are several gripping, and very vivid scenes, and many nods to Gothic fiction, not least in the explicit references to Thornfield and Manderley late in the narrative.

A check on the internet suggests that opinion is divided on this book. The Daily Telegraph savaged it, for instance, but many others love it. My own feeling – I hope this does not seem disrespectful to an author who has given me endless pleasure over the years - is that, for all the merits of The Minotaur, it would have benefited from quite a bit of pruning, rather like the Virginia creeper that shrouds the old mansion. If you fancy sampling Barbara Vine (and you should, because she is a wonderful writer), you are likely to find A Dark-Adapted Eye or A Fatal Inversion more consistently rewarding.

18 comments:

Maxine said...

This foreshadowing of doom is rather irritating when overdone, I agree. It is a trademark of Thomas H. Cook, whose novels are otherwise very good. But the constant references to a traumatic event that is revealed at the end of the novel are often quite a let-down (almost by definition). A recent book that did this far too much was The Likeness by Tara French. An author like Hakan Nesser can show how well an author can have a chilling effect without the need for a long repetitive build-up.

Juxtabook said...

I second what you say about Barbara Vine and A Dark-Adapted Eye. Grasshopper is also excellent. Oddly I much prefer Barbara Vine to Ruth Rendell! I guess that's why she has the two persona.

Xavier said...

"We know that Something Terrible Will Happen, because Kerstin tells us so. Again and again."

Ruth Rendell going HIBK is a weird thought indeed, and I'd be curious to read the book for that reason alone.

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thanks for this review. I'd like to especially thank you for mentioning A Dark Adapted Eye . I truly enjoyed that book; it really is, as you say, rewarding. Perhaps I'll wait on The Minotaur...

Deb said...

I've commented before about how much longer mysteries have gotten since the Golden Age, or even since the 1970s (can you imagine Agatha Christie publishing a 500-page behemoth?) and how that requires an incredible amount of unnecessary information and description in order to "make" the page count. Even the best mystery writers are falling prey to this quest for bigger-bigger-bigger. Right now I'm reading Reginald Hill's THE PRICE OF BUTCHER'S MEAT. Hill is one of my favorite writers and Dalziel & Pascoe are two of my favorite fictional detectives, but I'm already at page 136 and, so far, not a single murder has taken place--nothing but exposition. Although it's undoubtedly well-written, I find myself saying, "Come on, come on, get to the crime--after all, this IS a mystery!"

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I felt EXACTLY the way you did, Martin, when I read this book a few years ago.

I loved the sense of place I got, but I found the Swedish girl's determination to stay put fairly unrealistic. The foreshadowing was too heavy-handed.

I'm a huge Rendell/Vine fan, but this book was a disappointment to me--mostly because I think it could have been really riveting.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Ann Elle Altman said...

Yes, there can always be too much foreshadowing. I sadly haven't read much of Rendall but she is on my list of must reads. Thanks for the post, Edward.

ann

R. T. said...

What I had to say about THE MINOTAUR can be found here at BookLoons.

As for your recommendation for "pruning," I agree with you; as a matter of fact, I think all the Vine books that I've read would be helped in that way.

This leads to my question: How much does an editor have to say about matters such as "pruning"? Moreover, does a writer of Rendell's/Vine's stature have much of an obligation to "obey" such editorial advice, or are well-established (iconic) writers given free rein in all such matters?

Nicole_Hadaway said...

I actually enjoyed The Minotaur for its build-up and foreshadowing; it's more of a why-dunit than a who-dunit, as A Dark Adapted Eye. I found it interesting that Rendell linked the autism to having been exposed to a childhood illness.

I've not read A Dark-Adapted Eye but the television adaptaion with Helena Bonham Carter really captured my imagination. I also love Rendell's 13 Steps Down; she's one of my favorite authors.

Great post, Martin.

Dorte H said...

I think that while almost all her Wexford and Burden stories are of high quality, the Vine stories vary a lot (from okay to unforgettable). My own favourite is The Chimney Sweeper´s Boy.

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine, I very much agree. Thomas H. Cook does, I think, foreshadow rather more subtly than BV did in this particular book. I haven't read The Likeness. Nesser is a writer I definitely admire.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Juxtabook. I thought The House of Stairs was pretty good too, though A Fatal Inversion is, for me, almost impossible to top.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Xavier - nice point! I'd never thought of a comparison with Rinehart and co, but...

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Deb, as a fan of shorter books, I sympathise! That one is one of the few Hill novels I haven't got round to reading yet.

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, Ann, Elizabeth, thanks for your comments. Elizabeth, I'm glad I'm not alone in feeling these reservations about a book by a great crime writer.

Martin Edwards said...

R.T., thanks for the link to the interesting reviews.
An editor often has a huge say, but in the case of a national treasure such as Rendell or P.D. James, I would assume that most editors would be cautious about saying anything that would upset such an important writer. This was the case with Agatha Christie, and explains why the errors in her later books went uncorrected.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Dorte and Nicole. Among the Rendells with a Vine-like feel that I can recommend are Going Wrong and The Bridesmaid. In fact, most of them are excellent.

Kit Courteney said...

I agree with your favourite choices and also agree with Catherine that Grasshopper was excellent. Another that I thoroughly enjoyed was The Chimney Sweeper's Boy.

I also much prefer Barbara Vine to Ruth Rendell.

I shall read Minotaur now - I have it but haven't read it yet. You've resparked my interest!