on 23 November 1998
Reading this book is like biting into a piece of ripe fruit. Ruth Rendell's books are great partly because of their lucid complexity; she weaves two or three (or five or six) plots together. The books are best when she sticks to two or three. Rendell fans will be delighted with A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES; she avoids the mistakes of the last few years, in which she sometimes bit off more than she could chew.
This book is one of her studies of the psychopathic mind. It is also beautifully atmospheric, which is one of Rendell's trademarks. It has symbolism, red herrings, and dead bodies stashed away in unlikely places. I wish I had not read it so fast. I wishI were still reading it.
Ruth Rendell has been writing now for 40 years, and you'd think after the huge output she has achieved that she might be starting to go off the boil a bit, or even start getting a bit repetitive. But she is consistently coming up with the goods, again and again. "A Sight For Sore Eyes" is a leisurely tale, spanning many years, but it is absolutely enthralling.
Francine Hill witnessed her mother being shot dead in her hallway when she was a little girl. Eventually her father, riddled with guilt that he was somehow inadvertently responsible for his wife's death, marries Julia, a psychotherapist who has been struck off for being too zealous in her concern for one of her patients. Julia's excessive zeal is transferred to Francine, who she sees as a disturbed child who needs to be ruthlessly protected from the outside world.
On the other side of the tracks Teddy Grex is growing up in an emotionally-cold household, where his family barely seem to interact with each other on any kind of human level. Teddy is determined to rise above all this and make something of himself, but he doesn't realise that his family's dire upbringing of him has left a terrible mark on his soul. When he's grown up he meets Francine at college and becomes obsessed with her beauty. Francine in turn sees Teddy as a sort of knight in shining armour, someone to come and rescue her from the clutches of her overbearing stepmother.
The terrible truth is though that Teddy is a murderer who has already despatched a member of his family to an untimely death, and is to commit murder again before much more time has passed. He also doesn't want Francine as a real flesh-and-blood girlfriend, but as a sort of living statue to adore. Coming unwittingly into the plot is ex-Sixties wild child Harriet, now middle-aged and locked in a chillingly loveless marriage with a man 20 years older than herself. When she hires Teddy to make some cupboards for her she gets herself embroiled in his life in a way that she didn't bargain for!
At over 400 pages long, this isn't exactly a quick read, but there are many memorable scenes here. The last 20 pages will make your flesh creep, it's like something out of a Gothic classic. It's grisly enough for a James Herbert novel! Teddy's fate, when it eventually happens, is truly disturbing.
on 18 October 1999
I really enjoyed this book. the tension came from the unexpected. Not from a series of murders being investigated by policemen, but rather from the interelationships between the characters. I felt sorry for Teddy, who seemed to have risen above his background only to prove to be, after all, fatally flawed.
Although I'm 40 and a prolific reader, this is the first time I've picked up a Ruth Rendell. Perhaps because she's been going so long and I didn't really know where to start and felt beginning with the first Inspector Wexford might prove a bit of a `dated' read. So, I decided to start here - a stand-alone novel, which is then followed by The Vault (I believe this can also be read by itself, but picks up part of the story from A Sight for Sore Eyes).
I must say I'm torn as to how much I enjoyed this book. Did it keep me reading on? Yes. Did I enjoy the writing? Yes. However, I also felt that the tone of voice was somewhat twee, middleclass and dated (and I don't say this as an insult to the middle classes - I fall into that category myself!). At one point, I looked at the publication date and was surprised to see that it's 2011. This novel had the type of narrative inflection I'd assumed the Wexford novels would have. Incredibly middle England and a little bit out of step with real life and the present day. It starts in the 60s, but the two main characters, Francine and Teddy, are supposed to be modern - mobile phones are used; yet the whole feel of the novel is very past-times. I understand that due to both of their personal circumstances, Teddy and Francine have been somewhat isolated from the real world - yet there were times when Teddy (without giving anything away) was incredibly proficient and capable and other times when he was incredibly green; and these two sides just didn't seem to gel. Again, without wanting to reveal the plot itself, I was surprised by the number of `liberties' which seemed to be taken re getting away with a crime, covering it up etc. Rendell, as I've always viewed her, has to be one of the most proficient (and knowledgeable) writers when it comes to police procedure and tying up plot holes. However, I could imagine that if a first-time writer presented this book to an agent or publisher, they would be challenged on quite a few of the story strands. Overall, I get the feel that, maybe, Rendell is the equivalent of a boy band that hasn't moved with the times and is still churning out the same sound 30 years on! She's clearly a talented writer but I do wonder whether more modern, cutting-edge crime thrillers have left her in the shade and she's still turning out the types of novels she started off with. That said, for those who are die-hard fans, this may not be a bad thing.
All this aside though, I enjoyed the book. A lot of it was far-fetched - maybe quite a bit of it should have been challenged or questioned in order to provide a more `authentic' storyline. However, while many readers don't like coincidences in narratives and want things to run exactly as real life would, I am prepared to suspend my disbelief if I'm enjoying a novel. Technically, this wasn't perfect. The writing did feel dated - but I sort of enjoyed that too. I guess I would equate it to sitting down and watching Midsommer Murders or something like that; it's not anything most of us would recognise as feasible, nor does it capture what most people's lives are like - yet it's still good escapism. So, for that reason, I'm giving it three stars and I'll definitely be reading The Vault (and maybe even a Wexford!).
Audiobook review: I downloaded this from Audible. The narration is brilliant, with very absorbing characterisation and superb reading and engaging tone. The story is brilliant too, I was kept intrigued and fascinated all the way through and it's one of those plots that by the end makes total sense, ties in with no loose ends, and a very true insight into human nature from a psycho-drama perspective. I am amazed that an author with such prolific output, writes so well and in the case of this particular novel, the language and the very clever descriptions of the people, their thoughts and their view of the world is top quality. Highly recommended.