Barbara Vine, House of Stairs (1988)

This is probably the one novel by Barbara Vine I read for the longest time. It remained on my bed stand literally for months. I profess to love Barbara Vine, but I’m starting to wonder if I don’t love to hate it. It dragged for quite a while (about half of the novel), and I complained a lot to Mr. Smithereens, who kept answering me that it was all worth it (and later said nothing at all when I complained some more…).

But eventually, even if it was worth it, it’s still not the best Vine mystery in my opinion. I’d much rather re-read The Blood Doctor or the Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, for example. I readily acknowledge and admire her skills for weaving the plot so deftly (this is teaching material on structure!), for creating characters who seem so alive and flawed at the same time, and keeping the past and present so nicely interwoven, but there are whole passages where the action dragged, and I couldn’t relate to any of it.

Three things didn’t quite click for me, but might work for other readers: the setting in Notting Hill in the 1960s and 1970s, a period I don’t feel so much affinity with; the open parallel made early in the novel with Henry James’ Wings of the Dove; and the fact that the murderer here is a psychopath (very unusual for Vine!). I felt it was too much.

I couldn’t find any satisfying feeling of closure at the end of the book, but this is not something to hold against Vine. It’s a conscious choice to deny readers this sense of closure, it’s not meant to be a comfortable read. Indeed, few characters are really likeable here, and there’s a great sense of doom. When Rendell uses this pen-name, it’s not a classical whodunit but rather a more psychological interrogation on the nature of crime and guilt, and the long-time implications of it. Like in A Fatal Inversion, there’s a question of misunderstanding and a mystery set 15 years before. As the present time is set soon after the release of the murderer from prison, we know from the start who she is and that she has been convicted, but we don’t know what happened and whom she killed. But I won’t say anything more about it, because I want to preserve the secret!

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2 thoughts on “Barbara Vine, House of Stairs (1988)

  1. I think Barbara Vine novels can be a bit like that. I struggled with The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, but absolutely sailed through A Dark Adapted Eye. Perhaps her books need the reader to be in the right mindset, or maybe we have to click with a certain scenario for them to work. But she IS a good writer, I agree.

  2. Pingback: Barbara Vine, Grasshopper (2000) « Smithereens

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