Barbara Vine, Grasshopper (2000)

I always say that Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell’s pen name when she’s not writing straightforward crime novels) is a favorite author of mine, but it takes me so much energy to plod through the beginning of the few last novels I read that I might need to reconsider. I don’t mean to say that she’s not writing well (her skills are just grandiose), or that her novels are not carefully plotted and executed, or that her characters are not deeply believable and subtle. This is a fine novel in all these respects.

But, there’s a “but”. But this is not a comfortable novel to read. This is not a fast novel to read either. So here you are, about to dive into these 400+ pages, aware that it eventually will be worth it, but that you’ll likely to not enjoy it that much till the middle of the book. Mmh… some might hesitate, and I wouldn’t blame them.

Grasshopper is essentially the story, from her teens to well into adulthood, of a young woman, Clodagh Brown, who leaves her parents to study in London. I make it sound dull on purpose, but of course there is a lot more to it. (Just a question: are there many girls named Clodagh in England? I’d never heard any before. If an English person hears this name, will s/he make assumptions in terms of social class, education, etc. …?)

In secondary school, she and her boyfriend take to climbing electric pylons out of passion for heights, and in an unfortunate turn of events, her boyfriend dies of electrocution. She takes all the blame and is deemed hopeless. With such a bad start, it’s not easy to love such a character, as often in Vine’s novels. Her parents send her to London officially to study, but basically to get rid of her. She is lucky to be offered an independent basement flat by relatives, but once again this opportunity is fraught with difficulty because she is claustrophobic and has panic attacks. She soon gets bored with her studies and joins a group of other young oddballs who live on the top floor of a neighbourhood mansion and routinely climb on roofs above London. The bunch is a mix between naive and generous, mentally unstable, purely asocial – and probably evil – people. The right mix for disasters.

Barbara Vine’s forte is in the middle part, where all characters interweave and tension builds up, especially with many back and forth between two timelines. Clodagh Brown tells her story from her adult vantage point (so we know that she has turned out all right somehow), and there’s a lot of foreboding of tragedies, but we don’t know where it will strike. She titillates us with people who are not black-and-white, who start with the best intentions but desperately go wrong. Despite the allusions, I challenge anyone to tell in advance how the story will enfold. The good thing is that for once, Vine comes up with a tale of recovery and atonement, that ends surprisingly well.

Anyway, this isn’t probably a good introduction to Vine if you haven’t read any other yet, because there are some weaknesses. The first is that it reminds me too closely of other young-misfits-turned-bad-in-the-1980s of hers, as in A Fatal Inversion and the House of Stairs. (I’m not particularly drawn to this period either). The second is that the resolution depends too much of far-fetching coincidences. This was a bit of a let-down. The third is that I didn’t really see the fascination in roof-climbing itself, although it plays a big role in the plot and I can see it serves as a metaphor of a generation that wants to stay above and away from the responsibilities of adulthood (we see how dearly they pay the price for it). None of these weaknesses are ruining the novel but they are enough to make my review not as warm as I’d hoped.

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