I’ve often spoken and written of my admiration for the work of Ruth Rendell, both the books published under her own name and as Barbara Vine. I’ve now caught up with The Minotaur, a Vine book published in 2005, and found much in it to admire, although I must also confess to some reservations.
After a very short opening set in the present day, the bulk of the story is set in the past, when a young Swedish girl, Kerstin Kvist (who narrates the story), comes to England to be closer to her boyfriend, and takes up a job in rural Essex at Lydstep Old Hall, home to the dysfunctional Cosway family. Her duties involve looking after John Cosway, who behaves strangely and is kept on medication at the behest of his domineering mother. There are also four Cosway sisters, three of whom compete in different ways for the attention of a feckless painter who comes to live in the village.
We know that Something Terrible Will Happen, because Kerstin tells us so. Again and again. The relentless foreshadowing, which I mentioned in relation to another recent Rendell, The Birthday Present, rather got on my nerves, I’m afraid. I also found the characters unlikeable (this is not unusual with Rendell/Vine) and thought it difficult to understand why clever Kerstin couldn’t bring herself to leave and get a better job.
On the plus side, the atmosphere of the decaying Hall is marvellously evoked. Above all, there is a fascinating library, which contains a labyrinth of bookshelves – a truly memorable image. Indeed, the title of the book and the extraordinary nature of the labyrinth made me think it would play an even greater part in the story than proved to be the case. There are several gripping, and very vivid scenes, and many nods to Gothic fiction, not least in the explicit references to Thornfield and Manderley late in the narrative.
A check on the internet suggests that opinion is divided on this book. The Daily Telegraph savaged it, for instance, but many others love it. My own feeling – I hope this does not seem disrespectful to an author who has given me endless pleasure over the years - is that, for all the merits of The Minotaur, it would have benefited from quite a bit of pruning, rather like the Virginia creeper that shrouds the old mansion. If you fancy sampling Barbara Vine (and you should, because she is a wonderful writer), you are likely to find A Dark-Adapted Eye or A Fatal Inversion more consistently rewarding.