Thursday 13 August 2009

The Birthday Present

I’m a huge fan of Ruth Rendell, whether writing under her own name or as Barbara Vine, and I’ve often cited A Judgment in Stone and A Fatal Inversion as favourite titles. The Lake of Darkness and A Demon in My View are almost as brilliant. But it’s been a while since I’ve read anything by her. No particular reason for this, though I was disappointed by Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, while finding Thirteen Steps Down at least a partial return to form.

On holiday I read The Birthday Present, a Vine title, and I had mixed feelings about it. As ever, I admired the author’s insight into disturbed minds and the strange behaviour. The story has two narrators. One is the brother in law of an Old Etonian Tory MP whose sleazy behaviour during the Thatcher era when the Conservative Party dominated the British political scene is the catalyst for the book’s events. Ivor Tesham embarks on an affair with a married woman (who, in a nice touch, has changed her name from Hilda to Hebe) which ends in tragedy, and Hebe’s accidental killing in a car crash. Ivor fears exposure, and conceals the part he played in the events that led to her death. He is not really a criminal (unlike one or two real-life Tory MPs of the time) but his selfishness is portrayed with clinical distaste by Rendell (a Labour party donor who was herself elevated to the House of Lords, from where she has presumably contemplated the sleazy antics of contemporary politicians with similar contempt).

The other narrator is one of Hebe’s friends, a woman teetering on the brink of derangement. She knows Ivor’s secret, and one of the questions that teases the reader throughout is whether she will expose the politician, and thus destroy him. Rendell is very persuasive when she describes the thought processes of deranged people, and much of the book is very gripping.

However, there are weaknesses. The early pages are rather ponderous, and the finale seems unsatisfactory. There is a great deal of foreshadowing of future events, and at times this got on my nerves. If you’re looking for likeable characters, you won’t find many here, and I also thought there were a couple of gaping plot holes.

So, to my mind this is not a book to rank with Vine’s masterpieces. I venture to express various reservations simply because she is such a great writer that I think she has to be judged by the highest standards – not in quite the same way, at least for the purposes of a short blog review, as a debut or mid-list writer, or a purveyor of action thrillers. But I must emphasise that I really did enjoy reading it and, subject to those caveats, can recommend it warmly.


Table Talk said...

I've had problems with Rendell writing as Rendell and so hadn't read her as Vine until Harriet Devine 'had a go at me' and sent me 'The Minotaur' which I did enjoy very much. And then somehow didn't get round to any more. (Too many books, too little time!) This doesn't sound as though it should be my next foray, but I'll try the ones you mentioned at the beginning of your post and see how I get on.

vegetableduck said...

I don't believe I've read any new Rendell/Vine since the 90s (Crocodile Bird, Brimstone Wedding, Asta's Book). I quit reading the Wexfords back in the 80s, with The Veiled One. Though I do have copies of Thirteen Steps Down, The Rottweiler and The Minotaur that need to read someday! My impression from amazon reviews is that her latest books are not considered up to par with earlier ones, but, gee, she has written so much now!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'm a huge Vine/Rendell fan, although I've definitely found a few of her titles were weaker than others (to be expected when you're so prolific.) I love her psychological approach to her plots. I may pass on "Birthday Present," though and wait for a new title. Thanks for your review.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Kerrie said...

I thought this was a short story that was just too long. Lots of unnecessary minutiae. My review

Dorte H said...

And I am certainly going to buy and read it when I find it at the right price. The Vine books differ: the weakest are good books, the best are true masterpieces. I think my personal favourite is The Chimneysweeper´s Boy, but Asta´s Book comes close (partly because of the Danish angle).

R/T said...

I also had a disappointing experience with Ruth Rendell's THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT. The novel meandered annoyingly--perhaps because of the different narrative voices, which rather annoyed me--and, as I read along, I could not care much either about the characters or their circumstances. I had been asked to review it but declined to do so when I read the book. Nothing I could have said about THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT would have been well received by the review editor.

Martin Edwards said...

Thank you all so much. I found the range of opinions expressed truly fascinating.
Table Talk - I aim to read The Minotaur soon and I'm encouraged by what you say.
Curt - it must be difficult for an author who has set such a fantastic standard to keep it up. But I agree with what you say.
Elizabeth - again, I think it is true that by and large, the later titles are not quite at the same high level as the earlier ones.
Kerrie - I'd forgotten I'd commented on your firm but fair review!
Dorte - I liked both those books too.
RT - I did enjoy reading the book, for sure, but as I've said, the flaws were undeniable.

BooksPlease said...

This book was a disappointment - the plot depended upon too many coincidences and I thought it was rather lifeless and very predictable.

It should have been much shorter

vegetableduck said...

It's amazing to think that Rendell is 79 this year? And PD James nearly 90! They've been at it a very long time, and I suppose it was inevitable that they would be getting some criticism for being somewhat dated or for running out of steam a bit. When Christie was the age of Rendell, she was publishing Hallowe'en Party, a decent book, though rather in need of an editor! And the next year it was the widely-reviled Passenger to Frankfurt. I don't believe any of the later works by Rendell or James have been that criticized.

I'll have to read The Minotaur soon, I do like the title. I believe it's set in the 1950s, so one can't accuse it of not being up-to-date!