Barbara Vine has always been the more experimental side of Ruth Rendell’s mysterious brain. Rendell created Vine in part to escape the conventions of mystery and crime writing. The Vine novels tend to be a little more dark and Gothic and less predictable in terms of prose style.
It probably felt more natural, then, for Vine to write a book within a book based on two generations of a gay man and his sister, an unwed mother, living together. Grace Easton is working on a thesis about unmarried mothers in English literature and is asked to read an unpublished book called “The Child’s Child,” about a young girl born after World War I who’s about to be sent away to have her child after the father skedaddles. Her brother comes up with the idea that the two of them will live together in a remote English village as husband and wife. He, himself, is gay and at first he thinks this will be a good way of keeping him away from partaking in what he sees as a sinful life.
Almost 100 years later, Grace, the narrator, has inherited a large Victorian house with her brother, who’s also gay. He brings a lover, James, home who’s so handsome that “his teeth are like Americans’ teeth and have apparently been looked after by a dentist from Boston.” James is also so into gay rights that he chides Grace for even beginning to think that discrimination against unwed mothers was ever in the same ballpark as anti-gay prejudice.
“There’s no comparison,” he says. “Sending men to prison for being gay was outrageous, an affront to their human rights. Your girls just got looked down on by a bunch of old women.”
It really gets interesting when Grace, herself, winds up pregnant and, at first, weighs whether to abort the child. Things percolate very nicely, as they usually do in Vine/Rendell novels, until she begins reading the other book, at which point the next two-thirds of the Vine novel are taken up with the other story set a half-century earlier.
The problem is that the period drama isn’t nearly as interesting as the contemporary one. The characters are resolutely unlikable, even the gay brother who should be a hero to his sister, but is treated contemptuously by both her and his lover. His inability to stand up to them makes you want to kick him.
Of course, Vine is looking to compare earlier times with ours and some writers have seized on how things aren’t so different now. Vine being Vine, or Rendell, blood is spilled along the way, much of it being directed at contemporary gay men, which perhaps is why some folks see similarities to the past rather than differences.
That’s not, though, what I came away with. It seems to me that Vine rather dispassionately shows how much progress has been made, not in order to pat ourselves on the back but to just take it all in with a smart, anthropological mindset. It’s the march of history, mostly for better when it comes to human rights.
It would have been even smarter if Vine had reversed the ratio and spent two-thirds on contemporary times, which she excels at writing about. At least she ends on the right note, reminding us what a gift she is to English literature, and how lucky we are that she didn’t go in for historical novels.