Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A good bad book

My Christmas was rich in books. I received two hardcover novels ( as oldfashioned as that may seem) and a gift certificate with which I bought The Child's Child, a new Barbara Vine novel by Ruth Rendell. As Barbara Vine, Rendell writes about social issues, with a different cast of characters in each novel. I  have enjoyed several Vine novels in the past, particularly The Chimney Sweeper's Boy and was pleased to discover this new one.

The Child's Child , to my way of thinking, is not up to her usual standard. The fact that it is a novel within a novel should not be a problem; indeed, since Rendell is exploring changing  attitudes toward homosexuality and "unwed motherhood",  the two plots, one "then", the other "now", allows a comparison and contrast of social mores. The problems lie in characterization, research, and narrative choices.

Key characters,  imaginative in some areas of life, are astonishingly obtuse in other matters. Two of  the characters, in the 1920s section, construct an elaborate scheme to pass themselves off as a married couple. This fake marriage is necessary for the plot, but, logically, the young pregnant girl could have just as easily been presented as a young widow.  The young man and woman worry that the cleaning lady will realize that they sleep in separate rooms, not stopping to think that the girl's advancing  pregnancy, then her need to nurse the baby at all hours, are explanation enough.  Another example of character naivete for plot reasons is the gay man writing explicit letters to his unconsiderate lover, never stopping to think that his inamorato may use them to blackmail him.  Rule One in writing a suspense novel is, "Don't have your characters do silly things for the sake of the plot."

I was not  convinced that Rendell's depiction of 1920s social attitudes was entirely accurate. World War I, which shook up moral values,  must have had an impact on even the most static communities, but apparently not so in the lower middle class Bristol community she depicts. I didn't expect it to be like Paris in the 1920s, but would it really be such an island of rigid morals?

Grace, the narrator/protagonist of the 21st century section, is a doctoral student in English literature writing her thesis on the depictions of "unwed motherhood" in English fiction. Unfortunately, the gaps in her knowledge make her unconvincing. She seems unaware that social arrangements like marriage and legal concepts like legitimacy may be connected, historically, to the rise of private ownership.  Nor does she realize that, in some societies, all additions to the population were welcome. She seems unaware of the avant garde thinking of the Fabians and the Bloomsbury group.   In short, she is only vaguely aware that different social classes in different eras had different rules regarding "unwed motherhood." Her own decision to raise her baby in a unique social arrangement, rather than a traditional "Mum and Dad" one, could have been elaborated upon, to create the psychological depth for which Barbara Vine novels are admired.

Rendell/Vine creates vivid scenes in the first part of the novel, but in the last third, there is too much narration and not enough dramatization. Was she rushing to meet a deadline, summarizing because there wasn't enough time to "show"? The tragic ending to the "olden days" part of the story comes as no surprise; but the burst of action near the end of the present day part seemed tacked on.

Having said  these negative things about The Child's Child, should I toss my copy into the recycling bin? Absolutely not.  While  the novel would have benefited from  revision,  it is worth reading for the themes it explores. One troubling theme is the idea that members of one oppressed group do not necessarily feel a kinship toward those in other oppressed groups, but may hate and fear them.

This novel made me think of the current debate within The Writers' Union of Canada as to whether authors of non-traditionally published books should be admitted to membership. Currently, a self-published, p.o.d. published or electronically published book will not get an author admitted to TWUC; the book must be traditionally published.  TWUC members opposed to opening up the membership claimed that alternatively published books are badly written, badly edited, and unmarketable.  This may be true of some alternatively published books, but some traditionally published books fall short of the mark, as well.

Quality is  in the eye of the beholder. A "flawed" book has its merits, too.

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