Chalk and cheese: two novels by Barbara Vine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
On the surface, they are the same kind of book, which prompted the comparison. It is a genre that has been made popular by Robert Goddard — a mystery in the past that has repercussions for people in the present. I found The child’s child unsatisfactory and unsatisfying. I had started if with the hope of finding something as good as Asta’s Book, but it wasn’t. And then I wondered whether Asta’s Book was as good as I remembered it? So I decided to re-read it and see.
I found it was even better than I remembered it, so I upped its rating from four stars to five. It had none of the faults that so disappointed me in The child’s child. There, the past and present stories were not integrated at all, and had only the most tenuous connection between them. The characters were cardboard cut-outs, and they seemed to change every chapter for no discernable reason.
In Asta’s book the characters were consistent. Yes, they changed over a lifetime, and of course they were not the same at age 75 as they were at 25, but despite the changes, there was a person there. The story in the past was well integrated with the one in the present, and the plot twists made sense.
The child’s child looked even worse, by contrast. It reads like the early drafts of the first chapters in a thesis submitted by one of my students, where I would point out some of the things that needed improvement, and would say, “It reads like notes for a thesis, not like a thesis. Each paragraph has a separate piece of information, culled from a source, but you have not shown how it links to what goes before and what follows after. There is no argumentation, no thread that leads to a conclusion.” And that is how The child’s child reads — like notes for a novel, rather than an actual novel. With the thesis the student would rewrite the chapter, and it would be an improvement, until eventually it was polished enough to submit for evaluation. But surely Ruth Rendell (writing as Barbara Vine) has an editor who can perform a similar function the the promoter of a thesis, and point out some of the weak links and plot holes.
I enjoyed Asta’s Book even more the second time around. In part its appeal is that it is not only a whodunit, dealing with a cold (very cold!) case of murder and a missing child, but it is also a mystery of family history, which is one of my own hobbies. I enjoy reading about family history mysteries in fiction because I enjoy trying to solve them in real life, well, perhaps not quite real life, because most of the people involved are dead.
Perhaps this is a continuation of my review of The child’s child, and perhaps a response of sorts to blogger Clarissa, whose response to it was similar to mine. She ascribes the weakness to the fact that Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine to too old to write about young people any more. I wonder if it might be simply that she is too old. Asta in Asta’s book reaches the age where she no longer cares to write in her diary any more. It is only after her death that publishers become interested in the diary, and iot wasn’t written for publication. In real life, of course, Ruth Rendell is probably under pressure from publishers to produce “just one more” novel, but perhaps, in her 80s, like Asta she just doesn’t care any more, and a slapdash production like The child’s child is the result.