The Birthday Present

Frustrated by my inability to get hold of the Man Asian Literary Prize books I have turned to one of my favorite authors Barbara Vine, who of course is Ruth Rendell. I bought a Ruth Rendell too and that I shall read that next. But first to the latest Vine ‘The Birthday Present’.

I have always been a fan of Vine finding the complex psychological thrillers she unfolds carefully and painstakingly always to be well written, always surprising and I used to look with pleasant anticipation for the next one. To be honest I haven’t seen one recently and may indeed have missed one – The Minotaur being the last Vine I read. Anyway spotting this one as I looked for another book I could not resist.

I have read it as always quickly and enjoyed many touches though as a whole it did not have the completeness and subtle twists and turns I would associate with a good Vine. In fact the plot seems to be laid out in a  confusing first chapter and the rest of the novel sees that unfold through the eyes of two narrators. Brother-in-law Rob to the Tory MP Ivor Tesham is one and the so-called ‘alibi-lady’ Jane Atherton the other. Their narrations show two ends of a story which occurs around the death knell of Thatcher’s reign of power, always pleasant to re-visit that moment (where were you when you heard Thatcher had been relieved of the premiership?) and portrays the MP as an example of the sleaze which affected the last years in power of that defunct Tory government. The story itself revolves around a mock kidnap which goes wrong because of a car accident. The mock event had been part of a love tryst between the MP and a married woman, Hebe,who dies with another in the crash and was to be her birthday present!! The other narrator, Jane, is the alibi for the affair and her resentments, amongst her petty and lonely life is well portrayed in the novel and probably the most interesting aspect. Her chapters show a woman in decline of her faculties but still unable to twist the knife of blackmail to force money from the MP and then finds herself in the end murdered. It is her murder which leads to the unravelling of the story and the disgrace of the MP.

 It is nice to see a yarn about tory sleaze and his character is so richly painted as to be evocative of that 19 century public school toryism which lives in a different domain to the rest of us.

If you like Vine you will like this and if you haven’t read any Vine previously start with her earliest novels as they are very very good. On one minor point and I don’t know if Vine intendedbit as a joke but her general high level of accuracy was let down by announcing that someone who received a life sentence with a  recommendation for 15 years would be out of prison in three. This is simply wrong and misleading and furthers this misinformation about crime sentencing that a labour peer should not indulge in. That small gripe apart it was okay but maybe I am still annoyed at my delay in the book prize to engage with a UK novel.

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