The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine: B+

brimstoneFrom the back cover:
“It’s crazy thinking I can tell her,” says Genevieve Warner, thirty-two years old, thirteen years into a loveless marriage, and recently swept into her first passionate love affair. “She’s so old. She’ll have forgotten what sex is.”

But Stella Newland, the gracious, dignified, dying woman that Genevieve cares for in an English nursing home, has not forgotten. She knows all about love: its promises, its betrayals, its sometimes deadly consequences. She learned her lessons thirty years ago in a country house she owned, and owns still. When Genevieve confides in Stella, the old woman reciprocates by giving Genevieve the key to the now forlorn house, and by telling this young woman who will be her last friend, in the few minutes a day her failing strength allows, the story of her own erotic entanglement in adultery and worse, much worse.

Genevieve Warner, employed as a “carer” at a nursing home, feels a special affection for her charge, Stella, an elegant elderly woman who, unlike the other residents, seems firmly grounded in the present. As Stella’s condition worsens, however, she begins to confide in Genevieve about her adulterous affair of 20+ years ago and the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of film star, Gilda Brent. Parts of the tale parallel what Genevieve herself is going through as she is engaged in an affair of her own.

The Brimstone Wedding possesses a puzzling duality of attributes, in that it’s rather predictable at times yet still unforgettable. Most of the revelations in Stella’s story are easy to see coming, and one is often left merely waiting for the details to be revealed to Genevieve. Even so, the tale from the past is intriguing and the characters in the present so vivid that it’s hard to fault the story too much for going where one expects it to go. In fact, it’s done in such a way that I wonder whether Vine even intended for these revelations to be big twists at all.

The tone is different from other works by Vine (a.k.a. Ruth Rendell) that I’ve read recently. Mostly this is due to Genevieve, who has spent her life in rural Norfolk and has been raised to believe in all sorts of folksy superstitions, giving her a rather unique outlook. She’s also not weak and annoying like the heroine of The Keys to the Street, for which I am grateful. All in all, I enjoyed the book, and will certainly be reading more by this author in future.

The Brimstone Wedding was another recommendation from Margaret.

The Keys to the Street by Ruth Rendell: A-

From the back cover:
When Mary Jago donates her bone marrow to help a complete stranger, the act bonds her with the young man who lives from her transfusion. He will change Mary’s life in ways she could never imagine.

But every act has consequences, often unforseen. Mary’s generosity returns her not only love, but also its opposite. She finds herself in danger from both the middle class world she belongs to and the world of the dispossessed and deranged.

The Keys to the Street follows several different characters. In addition to Mary Jago, there’s Roman (a middle-aged man who became a vagrant as a way to deal with personal tragedy), Bean (a spry, elderly dog-walker with an eye for opportunities to blackmail his clients), and Hob (a young drug addict who beats people up for cash). Each is interesting and complex in their own right (though Mary is annoyingly weak in dealing with her overbearing ex), and Rendell skillfully and gradually weaves their lives together in an intricate way.

Several homeless people have been killed in the London park that all these characters frequent, and information concerning the deaths and subsequent investigation is parcelled out as each person becomes aware of it. The mystery is never actually the driving focus of the story. There are also subplots concerning Mary’s budding relationship with the man who received her bone marrow and Roman’s gradual realization that he’s ready to rejoin the “respectable” world.

Rendell does a great job with all the characters and tidily wraps up all the plot threads in the novel’s conclusion. My very favorite thing, however, is how she gives readers all the clues they need to put things together for themselves. Rather than spell out the significance of a particular cardigan or a funeral, for example, she allows readers to work out the meaning on their own. I spent a while wondering what the deal was with Mary’s new fella, and it was while I was standing at the sink peeling potatoes that I realized that I had all the information I needed already.

Also, this is the kind of book one keeps thinking about even while peeling potatoes.

The Keys to the Street was a recommendation from Margaret, to whom I am grateful. She mentioned two other books by Rendell that are particular favorites, and I shall be reading those in the near future.

Note: Quite a lot of detail is given on the environs of London’s Regent’s Park and I found it helpful to consult a map. I’ve included the link here for any who might be interested.

A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine: A-

From the back cover:
Like most families, they had their secrets—and hid them under a genteelly respectable veneer. No onlooker would guess that Vera Hillyard and her beautiful sister, Eden, were locked in a dark and bitter combat over one of those secrets. England in the fifties was not kind to women who erred. They had to fight it out behind closed curtains using every weapon they had. And in this case, it was murder.

Barbara Vine is a pen name for Ruth Rendell, whose writing I generally like a great deal. A Dark-Adapted Eye is no exception.

The book can’t be called a mystery, really. The culprit is clear from the beginning, as is the method. What is missing is the why. Told from the point of view of the niece of Vera and Eden Hillyard, we are presented with “warts and all” portraits of the women involved, ultimately leading to the circumstances inspiring the drastic act. It’s very well-done and interesting throughout.

One frustrating thing is that the narrator refers to a variety of people by their given names at the beginning of the book without referencing their relationships, so it takes a bit of time to work out who these people are. I ended up drawing a little family tree to help myself.

I also guessed what “the secret” would turn out to be halfway through the book. There was at least one awesome surprise, though. Definitely recommended.

A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell: B+

Book description:
Arthur Johnson’s loneliness has perverted his desire for love and respect into a carefully controlled tendency for violence. One floor below him, a scholar finishing his thesis on psychopathic personalities is about to stumble upon one of Johnson’s many secrets.

This short book is fun and creepy, and, on two occasions when describing Arthur’s early violent outbursts, downright disturbing. It had a number of twists that surprised me (though one I saw coming) and came across as neatly well-planned. It doesn’t surpass my favorite Rendell so far (The Lake of Darkness), but it really is quite good.

Rendell’s style of writing is incisive and atmospheric, and she excels at the “show don’t tell” technique. The book alternates perspectives between Arthur Johnson and the scholarly new tenant (Anthony Johnson), and these sections show not only the character of each man but also their differing perceptions of the same events. Much of the action in the book occurs due to Arthur misconstruing what has happened, owing to his lack of social skills. Sometimes one almost feels sympathy for this dangerous yet clueless guy, knowing how the clumsy overtures he’s attempting are going to turn out.

I found the ending to be a surprising and satisfying one. However, as many compliments as I have for it (and for the narration of Julian Glover), I’m having trouble picturing myself rereading it. At least not for a long while, until I’ve forgotten all the twists and turns.