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The House of Stairs Paperback – 11 May 1989
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About the Author
Barbara Vine was the pen-name of Ruth Rendell, and Viking published all of her books under that name.
Rendell was an exceptional crime writer, with worldwide sales of approximately 20 million copies, and regular Sunday Times bestsellers.
Rendell won numerous awards, including the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger for 1976's best crime novel with A Demon in My View, a Gold Dagger award for Live Flesh in 1986, and the Sunday Times Literary Award in 1990. In 2013 she was awarded the Crime Writers' Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence in crime writing. In 1996 she was awarded the CBE and in 1997 became a Life Peer.
Ruth Rendell died in May 2015.
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It is the sixties and a house where the host, Cosette, allows a great deal of freedom to her guests who come and go as they like. Elizabeth is the narrator through whom we are given access to much that happens. But then Elizabeth doesn't know everything, and some things she thinks she knows are distinctly wrong. Most of the details relating to what happens in this sixties novel are spot on. The candles which became de rigueur at a sixties party, the spliff smoked in the garden, passed round on a pin. Occasionally one wonders how well things might really have gone with such a mixture of ages in a house, but Cosette's largess rings true, especially after she finds love with a much younger man. Bell, who everyone thinks is his sister (Bell's lies haunt the novel's development) is not who she says she is, and slowly the backstory unravels, bringing a chilling end for one person, and the ruin of betrayal for another.
This is a chilling story altogether, another of Ruth Rendell's alter ego's profound successes.
My own view is that Ruth Rendell is just as good a writer as Barbara Vine (sometimes rather better). But I can understand her yearning to be seen as a "literary" author and I reckon she has found the way to achieve that aim. The characters in Barbara Vine novels do tend to be more complicated than those in Ruth Rendell's. The plots are darker. More time is spent on description, less on action. The literary critics are satisfied but, because she writes so well, her readers are also satisfied (almost as much as they are by the Ruth Rendell novels).
I very much enjoyed this book. There are wonderful descriptions of metropolitan life in the 1960s, Cossette, in particular, is a glorious and entirely genuine character. She is middle aged. Before her husband dies she leads a relatively conventional life in a large house in North London. But, in widowhood, she breaks away from convention. she buys a house, "the House of Stairs", in Notting Hill Gate and soon fills it with all sorts of young people who, on the whole, are only there because they can live off their hostess's untiring generosity. She provides food and drink on a large scale. She takes her guests out for lavish dinners in smart restaurants. She is entirely happy as they sit in her drawing room smoking drugs and indulging in obvious foreplay before finding the nearest bedroom to consummate their relationships. Perhaps not on quite the same scale, I remember people like that in London in the sixties (when I was a teenager).
Many of the other characters, even Bell, about whom the book is really written, are just as credible. Perhaps the only one who is not believable is the narrator herself. That is not apparent at the start of the novel. But, by the end, most readers will be totally bemused by her behaviour. I must not say more about that, but I do think it a slight weakness in the story.
The opening pages describe the narrator seeing someone she is sure is Bell on a pavement in Shepherd's Bush. She, the narrator, jumps out of her taxi in the hope of following Bell. Gradually we work out that Bell is a woman who, fourteen years previously, was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. She has now been released. Then we go back to before the court case. We are introduced to Cossette and others. We learn something of their strange (to 21st century eyes) lives. And so the story continues, sometimes in the present time and sometimes in the past. What did Bell do? We think we know, but then we are not sure. The suspense is kept up to the end.
This is almost as good as a Ruth Rendell novel. I recommend it with no hesitation.
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