THE CHILD’S CHILD
Reviewed by Graeme Aitken
It’s been four years since Ruth Rendell last published a novel under her pen name Barbara Vine, but the wait has been worth it, especially for her gay fans. The novel’s structure is of a book within a book, with academic Grace Easton reading an unpublished manuscript entitled The Child’s Child. Although it was written by a well-known author, it was never published due to its frank depictions of an unwed mother and a homosexual relationship. The manuscript opens in 1929 and centres around 15-year-old Maud, whose life is ruined when she is seduced by a handsome local youth which leaves her pregnant. Eventually, her parents discover her condition and bluntly plan to wash their hands of her. Luckily for Maud, she has a brother John, who is more kindly and thoughtful. He comes up with a solution that will protect Maud’s reputation and also provide a cover for his own situation. John is struggling with his homosexuality, and though he has a working class lover Bertie in London, he has resolved to be celibate. So he applies for a position in Devon, away from London and the temptations of Bertie, and takes Maud with him where she is unknown. Yet, things do not unfold as they might. Maud is hardened by her experience and her family’s rejection and grows into an embittered, suspicious young woman. While John finds he cannot dampen his feelings for Bertie despite his best intentions….
The characterisation is strong and complex, especially the character of Maud. The reader feels sympathetic to her situation and her limited options back in 1929, yet her plight seems to poison her character, and she develops into an unpleasant woman. She has no empathy for her brother John when she learns of his homosexuality, despite the fact that he has made many sacrifices to help her. The contemporary storyline that frames ‘the manuscript’ is much shorter but equally compelling and echoes the characters and plot of the main narrative. There is a sister, Grace, who falls pregnant unexpectedly; a gay brother who has a lover who Grace doesn’t particularly like; and of course a murder.
This is crime fiction of the highest order – a fascinating historical situation, complex, interesting characters, and a cleverly plotted, well-written narrative studded with twists and developments which compel the reader to keep turning the pages.