The Minotaur by Barbara Vine
I have been a long-time fan of Barbara Vine (who also writes as Ruth Rendell). Her novels deal with mytseries and secrets and the dark things that hide behind surbuban faces – especially English suburban faces. They often aren’t entirely successful; in particular, she has constant problems making her working-class characters believable – all too often they appear to be taken from Dickens or the latest Daily Mail headlines. But her books are rarely complete stinkers.
But here, in her latest book, Vine sticks to safe ground with her familiar mix of uptight middle-class English families with something to hide, and with nearly all the action set in the 1960s. Safe ground again; seemingly never very comfortable with contemporary settings, most of what I consider to be her best books are set in the past.
Kirsten Kvist,a young Swedish woman (Swedish references recur through Vine’s novels), takes up a nursing post in an ancient mansion deep in the Essex countryside. The Cosway family are immediately revealed as a very odd lot – a widowed dictatorial matriarch, her assorted adult daughters. And her adult son John, who is supposed to be mentally ill, but who turns out to be saner than any of them. Another intriguing character (almost as well-drawn as the human characters) is the house itself, which hides some surprising secrets of its own.
The twists and turns of the plot clearly mirror the maze which is at the heart of the story – every chapter brings some new suprise. Vine manages to keep it all going very nicely, with hardly a ball dropped; I really couldn’t put this one down, and the ending was indeed unexpected, as it ought to be.
However, I was left rather unsatisfied. For such an accomplished story-teller, the plotting has some rather large holes. For instance, what happened to the police murder investigation? And, although Kirsten married into a local family with a gossipy mother-in-law (as Vine pointed out a number of times), it took more than three decades for her to hear about the highly gossip-worthy local developments that ensued after her departure.
And then there is the question of John Cosway’s hair. As part of the 60s scene-setting, Vine has her narrator make a point of commenting on it if a male character has below-the-ears hair (correctly, as long hair on men was unusual at that time). However, as she says nothing at all about John’s hair, we must assume he had the short-back-and-sides that men usually wore then. Now, John is so touch-phobic that he will not allow anybody, even members of his own family, to touch him at all. And, for the first part of the book, he is too stupefied with drugs to handle scissors. So – who cut his hair, and how?
Apart from these small plotting gripes (none of which were insurmountable), though, it’s an excellent and gripping read.