A novel by Ruth Rendell (or her literary alter ego, Barbara Vine) is like none other. Not only do her plots take the reader one place, then move in totally unpredicted directions, but her form can vary from traditional narration, as in "The Child's Child," a novel within a novel in which fiction reflects real events that have not yet taken place. Moreover, this author deals with contemporary issues that serve as a spur for her ever-fertile imagination.
The subjects here are twofold, but related in the social mores and oppression they engender: the treatment of unwed mothers and of gay men in England, today and in the decades following World War 1. We may like to believe that we have come a long way (and in fact, we have) but Ms. Rendell/Vine reminds us that the much of the persecution, stigmas and resulting self-hatred remain. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. She does not allow the reader a moment of comfort or complacency.
The 1929 "novel" is framed by a contemporary story, told in first person by Grace Easton, a Ph.D. candidate in West London whose thesis topic is the treatment in fiction and real life of unmarried pregnant women and mothers -- before and after abortion became an option in the United Kingdom. Grace and her gay brother, Andrew, inherited a large house, where they have decided to live together, splitting the numerous bedrooms and studies. Things go smoothly until Andrew falls in love and brings his male lover, Bertie, to live with him (on his side of the house), much to Grace's dismay. Then, Andrew leaves for a brief trip, and in a one-off drunken episode, Grace becomes pregnant by her brother's partner. This is the 21st century, and Grace has her options.
Back in 1929, in a small West England village, Maud Goodwin and her gay brother John, have fewer choices in their lives. It is their "fictional" story that takes up most of the book, to which Grace and Andrew form a mere framework. While Grace's character is enhanced by her pregnancy, Maud's fling with a high-school jock makes her bitter, selfish and totally unappreciative of the sacrifices her brother makes on her behalf. John's homosexual relationship leads to tragic consequences, which Maud would prefer to ignore. She carves out her own life of misery, and eventual alienation from her now unwelcome daughter -- a denouement that might not have been inevitable had Maud been less self-centered and conniving.
Much of Ms. Rendell/Vine's plotting leans on choices, or the lack of choices available at a particular point in time. Societal pressures determine some of these choices, but there are options nonetheless, and her characters act in ways that might have worked out differently had the individual been stronger or weaker in each situation. One thing is certain: the results are seldom what we expect them to be, and that is part of this author's special genius.
Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.