Book review: The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine

WHAT I’m about to say may shock you. So before I do, I’d like to state unequivocally that I understand the reverence in which Ruth Rendell and her literary alter ego, Barbara Vine, are held.

The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine

Viking, £18.99

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I understand too the reasons for such respect – not least that Rendell/Vine has written 50 books in as many years, proving herself to be a crime writer of astonishing abilities, adept at both the police procedural (there are more than 20 Inspector Wexford novels) and the psychological thriller, often penned under the Vine soubriquet. But here is the problem: The Child’s Child, the 14th ­novel from Vine, the first since 2008’s The Birthday Present, just isn’t very good. There, I’ve said it.

It’s not, of course, that there aren’t flashes of skill – deft characterisation, effortless weaving of social history into a narrative that, at times, clips along at a pleasing pace – it’s that these moments are fleeting, encumbered by a novel that feels like a suspense-by-numbers exercise, replete with characters who fail to convince or captivate, literary devices that are heavy-handed and central themes (social prejudice against women in the 19th century and gay men in the 20th) which are yoked ­together uneasily, never really illuminating each other or ­allowing Vine to reveal anything other than her own opinions through their exposition. If I sound damning, it’s only because from a writer of such skill, this is a stinging disappointment.

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Vine uses the device of the novel within the novel, framing a long lost, unpublished novel set in the 1930s and 40s, with a contemporary narrative. The contemporary story focuses on Grace, an academic researching the treatment of unmarried mothers in Victorian novels, who is bequeathed, along with her brother, Andrew, a sprawling house in north London.

The siblings decide to live in the house together, which is all fine and well (the house is huge, so allows them plenty of space) until Andrew brings his lover, James, a writer prone to mood swings, obsessed by Oscar Wilde – and inexplicably unaware that George Eliot was a woman – to live with him. Vine attempts to create a sinister tension between the three but it falls flat because none of these characters is fully formed, their motivations remain unclear, their ideas and conversations clunk with the phoniness of being written by someone who isn’t entirely sure what people in their 30s talk about and so has substituted her own concerns.

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No one of Grace’s generation wonders about the impact of mobile phones on the way that we communicate, nor would she ever need to ask how a search engine works, even as a ruse.

When Vine approaches something of the form that she’s rightly known for it is in the unpublished novel which tells the story of another pair of siblings, John and Maud. He is a gay man living in fear of his sexuality being discovered, she is a schoolgirl with hopes of university before an unplanned pregnancy turns her life upside down. Here, Vine deftly weaves details of the privations of war with her characters’ life stories and concerns. But it’s not enough. Even here, the arc of their stories feels rushed and unsatisfactory and that’s probably the fairest ­assessment I can give of The Child’s Child itself.