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Ruth Rendell on terrific form,
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This review is from: The Water's Lovely (Hardcover)
Ruth Rendell has been one of my favourite crime authors for many years now, but there was a period recently when she appeared to have lost her way slightly, producing a couple of books well below her usual standard. 2002's Wexford novel, 'Babes In The Wood' read like a short story padded out to three hundred pages, it was so slow and cumbersome. 2003's 'The Rottweiler' was even worse, surely the weakest book she has ever written, full of absurd stereotypes, ridiculous coincidences and ill-judged attempts at humour. It was hard to believe it had really been written by the same author who produced the likes of 'A Dark-Adapted Eye' and 'Keys To The Street'. Even her 2002 Barbara Vine novel 'The Blood Doctor', although far better than the two Rendell books, had something missing.
Since then, I'm relieved to say, she has been back to her usual self; her two novels from last year - the latest Wexford, 'End In Tears', and another Barbara Vine book, 'The Minotaur' - showed she was on form once more, and 'The Water's Lovely' continues that run of successes.
It's a typical Rendell tale of the secrets which bind a family together and eventually drive them apart. Sisters Ismay and Heather are trying to forget the death of their stepfather Guy twelve years ago when they were just teenagers. Guy was drowned in his bath, and Ismay has always suspected that Heather was responsible, protecting her beloved sister from Guy's sexual advances. Now both sisters are in serious relationships, and Ismay is wondering if Heather's fiance Ed should be told about his bride-to-be's apparently murderous past.
As usual in a Ruth Rendell mystery, a whole host of other characters become caught up in the events, from the girls' mad mother and her long-suffering sister to the families, friends and neighbours of their partners. All have a part to play in the unfolding drama, and the seemingly disparate threads are drawn inexorably together with consummate skill as the novel approaches its climax.
One of the author's greatest gifts is her skillful characterisation. It would be true to say she rarely draws especially likeable or heroic characters, which is either a fault or an accurate reflection of human nature, depending on your point of view. However, there is no one better at exposing and examining human frailties, weaknesses, compulsions and unpleasant impulses. Simple definitions of good and evil have no place in Ruth Rendell's books; she constantly challenges the reader not to make hard and fast judgements by pulling the rug out from under us. It could be argued that some of the peripheral characters occassionally verge on caricature, but overall both minor and major figures are richly and convincingly portrayed, their faults all too recognisable to us - much to our discomfort.
One of the recurring themes in all the Rendell and Vine books which I find most compelling is the frequently capricious fate whose machinations have us all at its mercy. The decent, helpless and innocent often suffer unhappy fates, while the devious, selfish and downright nasty sail through life without an apparent care. The author doesn't make overt judgements, but leaves us to ponder the injustice of it all. It's particularly apt that this novel contains allusions to 'Tess of the D'Ubervilles', as Hardy (perhaps my all-time favourite author) was always deeply concerned by the essential unfairness of life.
I tried hard to ration myself with this book, starting out by reading a chapter or two at a time to make it last and savour the experience, but the storyline soon had me by the throat and I rushed through it in a day. Ruth Rendell is clearly back to her best, and there are few other crime writers, if any, who can match her on such blisteringly good form. Those who want quick, cheap thrills with bloody corpses littering every chapter would do well to look elsewhere, but for an intelligent, slow-burning thriller you'll be hard-pushed to find better this year.