Monday, December 5, 2011

The House of Stairs, by Barbara Vine

I picked up this novel at a warehouse sale despite its dreadfully illustrated dust-jacket. I was on the verge of judging the book by its cover when my friend ambled over and said, "You should buy that one."  At the top of the dust jacket appeared the words, "Ruth Rendell writing as BARBARA VINE". I told my friend that I'd read another of Rendell's novels and was only moderately enthusiastic about it. He was just as adamant:  "But her books as Barbara Vine are so much better!"

I've just finished reading The House of Stairs (recording it for M'sian Association for the Blind), so now I've read one novel by Ruth Rendell as herself (The Water's Lovely) and one by Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine. Although the first isn't a bad book, the second is notably better. My friend and I are not the only people to hold this opinion -- late British crime writer Julian Symons admired the works of Ruth Rendell but felt "the Barbara Vine novels are her finest work."

 Writers use pseudonyms for a whole host of reasons, but when one's real name is printed on the cover alongside the adopted one, the only mystery is... why? Anonymity is obviously out of the question. She's not an author who wants to try out a different genre under an alias -- both Vine and Rendell write crime-mystery fiction. She doesn't want to see if her books might sell better if readers thought her a man, as the Bronte sisters had. Maybe I've just been reading too much of this genre lately, but I start wondering about multiple personalities. Does Ruth Rendell don a Barbara Vine mask and assume a new persona when she sits down to work on a book by her alter-ego?  Who is Barbara Vine, and why does she exist? Well, regardless, I'm glad she does, and I'm thrilled that she wrote The House of Stairs.

The mystery in this novel is not whodunnit. We know who committed the murder in the first chapter, but only in the final one do we know the victim. It's a fascinating twist on the crime drama, and it gives the book a very different shade of suspense. Only the reader is in the dark; the characters all know the whole story, but Vine is very cautious, allowing them to leak this hint or that bit of foreshadowing now and again.

Elizabeth, the book's narrator, has once again met Bell, who just finished serving her prison sentence for murder. Elizabeth clearly has a complex emotional connection to Bell, ranging from fascination to fury over the years. Mutual friends initially describe Bell as bluntly honest, but Elizabeth learns -- too late, unfortunately -- that she is merely blunt. She is altogether too capable of fabricating stories about her past and her family. If she's tactlessly insensitive of others' feelings, she appears to have few of her own. Still, people are drawn to Bell, fascinated by her, wary of her, protective toward her. She remains largely indifferent to what anyone else thinks or does.  Or so she would have people think.

At the opposite end of the social skills spectrum is Cosette, Elizabeth's adored aunt. Widowed and wealthy, vivacious and generous, Cosette buys 'the house of stairs', an oddly vertical residence in London's Notting Hill, with the idea that it will be her salon. The many rooms off the 106-step central staircase can house the shifting cast of characters who will surround her with sparkling activity and conversation. Elizabeth moves in, and after a time, so does Bell. As with any group of people, tensions flare, and alliances shift. Love and lust come into play. The house is a character in its own right. Vine puts us solidly there, climbing the stairs, sitting in the 'grey garden', in which everything -- the eucalypt tree, other leafy plants, and even the flowers -- are all in shades of grey, gazing out the French windows, sitting with Cosette in the drawing room as the phone or doorbell rings to announce another guest.

I did want to know who died, but I was happy to savour this book and spend time with all its characters.  I was content to sip wine with Cosette and her entourage, watching the eucalypt shedding its grey leaves, wondering -- as Elizabeth and Bell were wont to do -- why Gary and Fay did this, or why Ivor said that. People are interesting. Some of them are greedy, others gracious, or stolid or brilliant, and some of them kill others, believing it justifiable.  All very interesting.

Afterword:  In this Guardian interview on 1 March 2013, Ms. Rendell discusses the very distinct voices of Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine.

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