Barbara Vine – The Minotaur (2006)
Oh, brilliant! Brilliant! I cannot rave enough. Sad to have finished such a brilliant piece of fiction, and yet elated at having read such a compelling and satisfying one, this is always the poor reader’s paradox when faced with a great book. Especially one they have waited three long years for; especially one that sounds to tantalizingly good (“dare we hope it might fulfill the promise of the synopsis…?”); especially one that comes from an author whose track record is immaculate, untarnished by a single failure, a single lackluster performance. When reading one of Rendell’s Vine novels you are torn, painfully torn: gallop ahead through the story, devour the thing in a matter of gulps; or ration yourself, savor it and extend the pleasure while at the same time denying yourself. Perhaps, even, read it twice?
It’s the late 60s, and a young Swedish nurse Kerstin Kvist comes to England to take up a job for the Cosway family at Lydstep Old Hall – huge, past its best, covered with rambling creepers – ensconced in the landscape of the Essex countryside. Taken in order to allow her to continue her affair with Mark, whom she met at the University of Lund, her task it to be part-time career to John Cosway. “There’s madness in the family,” explains one of his sisters, and it’s sentiment that’s frighteningly believable, given the oddities of the Cosway family. Three unmarried sisters live under the rule of their matriarch mother, widowed Mrs. Cosway. There’s a fourth sister, Zorah, who lives in London and comes and goes eclectically, showing obvious contempt for all except John. Yet, they seem strangely in thrall to her. Then there is John himself, a sad, isolated figure. Kerstin, with her training as a nurse, knows it isn’t right to be administering such powerful drugs to someone in his condition.
While Kerstin searches the grounds for the famous “maze” she has heard talk of, an enigmatic artist moves into the nearby village. It’s possible that their self-contained, sinister and mysterious life might have continued unhindered had he not arrived. It’s possible, too, that the final destructive tragedy of the Cosway family would have happened anyway.
It’s hard to know what to start praising first, really, hard to know which particular things to remark upon. Really, it’s the whole thing that’s superb, a marvelous product of its fascinating, gripping, perfectly placed parts. Vine shows a remarkable degree of craft here, more than ever before, possibly. The entire thing is plotted with the intricacy of the most renowned jeweler, the most justly proud maker of jigsaws. The labyrinthine, gothic plot is laid out with the same dedicated precision with which Daedalus built his Cretan maze. The detail is remarkable; every single wry, masterful observation of character (a trademark), every single dropped fact, goes to form this brilliantly bizarre psychological portrait of this curious family.
The Minotaur is Rendell’s 12th Vine novel. There’s also a chance that it’s her best. I would say that only No Night is Too Long stands as its competition. It is a careful, subtle, and unfailingly gripping book. Gripping partly because of this remarkable family Vine creates, this stupefyingly odd group of people who behave, at times, absolutely inexplicably. This, coupled with the matter-of-fact tone of Kerstin’s narration (reared on Victorian novels, their influence is clear in her style), creates a brilliantly sinister tone. The juxtaposition of this careful narration and the psychological mess it observes is unnerving. This book grips like a cobra, and hypnotizes like one too; it’ll exert a stranglehold on you just as the strong as the vines which cling to Lydstep hall. The sentences flow and tremulously frighten, and magic me completely.
This very restrained, subtle narration, that holds back as much as it reveals, means that Vine brings a powerful weapon under her dominion: the ability to make a single drop of blood barbaric, as if some portent of Hell and terror. So tense, so restrained, that when blood finally is spilled, it’s more horrifying than a basement of corpses. Rendell’s intelligent subtlety is what makes her Vine books some of the best crime novels written: horrific revelations pass quietly under the surface, uncomfortably, and are never directly addressed. They have all the barbarism of a snake digesting a rat whole: you can’t see it exactly, but you know for sure its there.
As a creator of atmosphere Vine is also unrivalled. Everything here is so creepy, so atmospheric. The atmosphere of a country house in the sixties, the atmosphere of village life, the atmosphere of this absolutely odd family whose behavior seems to make no sense. The entire thing is so oppressively sinister, every sentence drips with it, rings with ominous portent. She has a way of constantly introducing small twists, so the situation is constantly changing, giving rise to even more odd events, so you never really can get a handle on what’s going on, no possible explanation seems to make sense. Towards the end, I found myself apprehensive, as I had no idea from which shadowy corner, which of these sinister little pockets of Cosway life (rich Zorah, domineering Mrs., sluggish yet volatile John, or even the chattering village beyond) the final explanation may jump. I didn’t know where to look, so just gave up. You must, with Vine, give yourself up to her in this way. And it can feel uncomfortable, stomach-shifting, to do so, to have absolutely no idea where you’re going. And the ending, with its understated bitter sting? Well…desolate is probably a good word. Most importantly, so would satisfying.
It’s the best thing I’ve read this year so far. In terms of crime fiction, it shows how she stands in a class of her own. In terms of fiction, I would give it this year’s Booker right now if I had the power. No one else alive writes books like this.