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the past extends its tentacles
on 20 February 2004
Genevieve Warner, a young woman trapped in a hopeless affair and a loveless marriage, works at Middleton Hall, a home for the elderly. Most of the residents are pleasant enough, contentedly reminiscing about their lives to their carers, but Stella is different. Stella and Genevieve immediately form a bond, taking to one another, seeing little bits of their own personality and situation within the other. Unlike other residents, though, Stella is sharp, smart, and in control, and she does not share the memories of her past, so retains a definite air of mystery. But Stella is dying of lung-cancer, and now she feels a desperate need to tell someone the story of her eventful life, so that her secrets do not die with her, following her into the grave, unknown forever. Thus, she decides to tell her story to Genevieve, slowly unfolding a tale that is moving, powerful, and, ultimately, subtly horrific.
This, "The Brimstone Wedding", is yet another masterpiece of atmospheric fiction from Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell). Yet again she synthesises her twin storylines one in the past, one in the present brilliantly, and they eerily mirror each other down the generations. She builds the atmosphere brilliantly in both the time periods, and the suspense is continually ratcheted up, helped along by subtle and tantalising hints as to what exactly Stella’s shocking secret could possibly be.
This time around, the characters are also more likeable than is the norm for a Vine novel, so it has a warmer, deceptively (and dangerously) cosy feel, which is juxtaposed with the usual chilly atmosphere and down-to-the-bones and wonderfully detached writing style. They’re characters you are motivated to care deeply about, which serves to make this not only a powerful in places but also very moving. Certainly, there was one point when I even shed a few tears.
The story is told brilliantly, giving readers enough information to satisfy, but yet as little as possible, to ensure that they need continually to turn the page to find out more. It all culminates excellently with a shocking revelation about the true nature of Stella’s secret. This revelation is not overblown and exaggerated, as some authors might make it, instead Vine underplays it, clearing it entirely of melodrama and simply telling things exactly as they were, which forces the reader to actually think about it, thus bringing huge power to the climax.
This, a masterpiece that is the sum of many excellent parts, is a complete triumph for Vine, matching up very equally with my previous favourite of hers, the erotic and chilling genius that is "No Night Is Too Long". Neither of these books should be passed over by any reader worth their salt.