Book review: The Birthday Present

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THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT By Barbara Vine Viking, 288pp, £18.99

WHAT WOULD IT TAKE TO MAKE A selfish, posh, lustful and ambitious Tory MP into a nicer man?

The Birthday Present is the 13th novel Ruth Rendell has published under the name of Barbara Vine (her own middle name and her grandmother's maiden name), beginning with A Dark-Adapted Eye, back in 1986. These novels have always been more complex than those published under her own name, often reaching back a long way into the past to uncover crime and guilt that can never be escaped or expiated. Many of them also use London settings powerfully, exposing the way that completely different worlds co-exist there without meeting – and can then wreak havoc when they do intersect.

Rendell observes the harm people do one another with peculiar detachment, seeming not to care about what happens to them. One critic memorably put it thus: "Ruth Rendell writes about people as coolly as a behaviourist observing the effects of fear or pain on laboratory rats."

Sometimes the effect of not having to feel too much sympathy for or involvement with her characters is oddly exhilarating and liberating to the reader. At other times, the sense that none of the characters is actually likeable, or at least not much liked by their author, paralyses one's interest.

The Birthday Present has two narrators. One is a decent bore, tangential to the action, who introduces the story; the other is a nutty spinster, critical to it, whose awful diary we read.

Rob Delgado, an accountant and devoted father of four, is the loyal brother-in-law of Ivor Tesham MP. Ivor is an Old Etonian barrister, a former president of the Oxford Union, from a well-off Norfolk family with a long track record in politics. At 31, he is elected to a seat often held before by his family and begins to plan his rise in the Conservative Party, surviving the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1992, prospering under John Major, becoming a minister of state in the Department of Defence.

Ivor is good-looking, confident and, within the limits of his code, a man of honour. He's also highly sexed and a little bit kinky. His mistress is blonde, long-legged Hebe Furnal, 27, faithlessly married to Gerry, a charity fundraiser, with whom she has a two-year-old son. They live modestly, between West Hendon and Edgware, an area that Ivor dismisses as the "sticks" or sometimes the "boondocks" and has never visited.

Ivor picks up Hebe almost instantly, when she attends a parliamentary reception for her husband's charity. Their sex life involves a lot of "games and dressing-up and enactments" and they have phone sex every day, despite Hebe's two-year-old son shouting, "Don't talk, Mummy, don't talk." For her actual trysts with Ivor, Hebe relies on alibis provided by a subservient friend, Jane Atherton, telling her husband they're seeing a movie or having a girlie dinner at Caf Rouge. Her besotted husband hasn't a clue about her double life.

Jane is a librarian, single, embittered, impoverished and shortly to be sacked. She's also a fantasist. In an attempt to impress her ghastly mother, who lives in Ongar, she's had to invent an imaginary boyfriend. And she covets Hebe's husband and doesn't even like her so-called friend.

"How could I have liked a woman who had everything I've never had? Did she like me? Probably not, but she liked me being plain and dull and awkward, while she was such a star." Jane is strongly reminiscent of the gruesome Barbara in Zo Heller's Notes on a Scandal.

Jane has once more provided an alibi for Hebe on the night that disaster strikes. As part of their role-playing sex games, Ivor has arranged a treat for Hebe on her birthday – she will be pretend-kidnapped off the street by an Irish chancer and an out-of-work actor, bundled into a car and delivered to him, bound and gagged, for a hot date. But the car collides with a 40-tonne lorry. Hebe and the actor are killed outright; the Irishman survives, brain-damaged, a risky element in the future.

If the truth about that night gets out, Ivor's political career will be over. And lonely, hard-up Jane knows at least some of what happened. But first she moves in on Hebe's grieving husband ...

Rendell plays cruelly with her pawns, as she drags out the inevitable catastrophe over a long period. For example, Jane manages to move in with the unwitting Gerry on the pretext of becoming the carer for the little boy, letting out her own small flat. But when Jane's tenant comes round one day, Gerry immediately falls for her.

"Life is unfair," says Jane. "That's the first thing I ever remember Mummy saying to me. I must have been about four. 'Life is unfair, Jane,' she said. 'You have to get used to that.'" Maybe Mummy was right, maybe not. What's certain is that life's not just unfair but systematically cruel in a Ruth Rendell novel.

Rendell clearly has in mind the multiple sex scandals that dogged the end of the last Tory administration – David Mellor and Antonia de Sancha, Antony Buck and Bienvenida Perez Blanco among them. Perhaps she thinks Conservatives are especially prone to this particular type of folly, although others might suppose it to be equally true of all politicians, psychologically deformed as they are by the drive for power, whatever their party.

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