Title: The Minotaur
Author: Barbara Vine (a.k.a Ruth Rendell)
Publisher: Shaye Areheart Books (2006)
Kerstin (pronounced ‘Shashtin’) Kvist is a Swedish nurse hired to care for schizophrenic John Cosway in an English country house. Soon after her arrival it becomes clear there is little for her to do other than accompany the silent Cosway on his walks and ensure he gets his medication. Living in the house are Cosway’s mother and his four adult sisters and, although it is the early 1960’s, the household is reminiscent of the Bennett’s in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the way it is run and the obsession with getting at least one of the women ‘married off’.
Vine/Rendell is a great story teller and here she has weaved a story that, despite not being full of murders or chase scenes, did manage to capture my attention. Told in the first person narrative by Kerstin the tale is an intricate observation of a dysfunctional family and the few outsiders they deal with and is, in its quiet way, absorbing. The characters, though not terribly unique, are interesting enough and I would happily have immersed myself in the goings on at Lydstep Hall with a deal of relish if it weren’t for the fact this is a very poorly written book.
There are some horrendously annoying things here, made all the more difficult to swallow because a writer of Vine’s undoubted talent doesn’t, or didn’t used to, have to resort to them.
Firstly there are the constant, unnecessary reminders within the text that the book is reminiscent of Jane Austen’s England. The story, indeed the writing itself, literally scream Austen-esque. Read the introduction of Mr Dunsford at the start of Chapter 9 and even if your only exposure to Jane Austen has been to see the movie Clueless you’ll get the reference and won’t need to be endlessly reminded with such clumsy methods as the narrator likening herself to Elizabeth Bennett being interrogated by Lady Catherine de Burgh.
Secondly, and even more annoying, are the vague references about big events still to happen. The narrator’s tale is told in the present day reminiscing about the events of her time spent in the Cosway household. It’s not a spoiler to suggest that the most dramatic event of the book takes place towards the end but until that point there are so many “if only I’d known then what was to come” lines that I would cheerfully have thrown the book at a wall if only it wasn’t so heavy. The written equivalent of a movie-maker’s Da Da Dunnnn has always been a bugbear of mine and what it did to this book was remove the last hint or suggestion of suspense.
Without that it was a pretty humdrum story about some people who were insular, isolated and a little odd but not nearly intriguing enough to carry an entire book of awkward prose.
My rating 2/5
Mystery Ink (they loved it)
Telegraph UK (they didn’t)