Book review: Portobello

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Portobello by Ruth Rendell Hutchinson, 288pp, £18.99

WYNDHAM LEWIS CALLED IT "Rotting Hill", that area of west London where the disorientating streets and stuccoed terraces are partly built upon an old racecourse. Ruth Rendell sees Portobello Road as a centipede, the short streets leading off it the legs of a creature that is forever wriggling, at the same time fascinating and fearsome. She is almost on home ground here: this is her patch and she is clearly in love with its eccentricity and exotic market where you can buy "star fruit and custard apples, amaranth flakes, wild rice, aubergines striped like dahlias, samphire, chorizo and Chinese cabbage".

The denizens of Portobello, rich and poor living cheek by jowl, are equally outlandish. The plot, set in motion by a McGuffin in the form of a lost envelope full of money, ensures that they rub up against each other until sparks fly (literally).

Instead of handing it in to the police, Eugene Wren, a fine-art dealer who lives in Chepstow Villas, puts up notices on nearby lamp-posts. This brings him and his des res to the attention of Lance Platt – "unregenerate shoplifter, mugger, mobile phone thief and batterer of the woman he had lived in sin with". Such, at least, is the view of his great-uncle Gib, a cadaverous skinflint and ex-con, who is slowly starving Lance in what must be the only remaining ungentrified house in the neighbourhood. When the born-again Gib lets out the semi-derelict top floor to a handsome Romanian immigrant, the stage is set for fireworks that result in Lance being arrested for arson and murder.

Meanwhile, young Joel Roseman, who lost the cash when he had a heart attack, has successfully reclaimed it and rather fallen for Eugene's fiance, a GP called Ella. Unfortunately, Joel is haunted by his dead sister and an angel called Mithras. Eugene, on the other hand, is terrified of getting married in case Ella discovers his addiction to chocolate-flavoured slimming sweets.

And so the silly but sinister story unwinds, impossible to put down and, to be honest, impossible to believe. Yet this really doesn't matter: Rendell, at her most sardonic here, may view all her characters as creatures who live under stones but it is her superb sense of place that counts. She makes you smell the excitement and desperation. Portobello is as brilliant as anything she has ever written.

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