When a true-crime writer comes to Faith Severn asking for corroboration of the details he’s unearthed about her murderess aunt, Faith’s reminiscences build a very different portrait of the family that has been both dear and alien to her over the years, casting new light on very old secrets.
I have read several books by Barbara Vine and her alter ego Ruth Rendell, and this is by far my favorite. She excels at characterization; none of her creations can be neatly encapsulated by the sort of paradox shorthand that so often passes for nuance. This book is no exception. The portrait of the extended Longley clan is shatteringly precise, as though it were a real history and not fiction.
Even more masterful is Vine’s confidence in allowing the story to unfold. At many times in the narrative she has Faith make a casual mention of a key plot element, but doesn’t go into any more detail at that time. All is told by the end, but Vine skillfully controls the information for a level of suspense that has nothing to do with a plot-based menace like a stalking serial killer or some other blunt instrument. This is Faith’s family; she knows her own story, and it’s almost as if she expects us to know certain details that she lets pass by. Early on there are multiple references to a “Pearmain,” but this person’s identity isn’t revealed until very late in the book. Faith’s tone in mentioning him assumes that his identity would be known by the reader, and, in fact, it would be known if this were a true account of a real crime, because he was a key player. It’s a tricky device, but Vine pulls it off and then some. What’s most intriguing to me about this technique is that Faith actually ascribes this quality to her aunts Vera and Eden, that they would tell stories about people she didn’t know, but tell them as though Faith should know who they are. Having Faith do this to us serves to align us with her–we are both outsiders in this family–at the same time that reminds that Faith is family, and we are not. She’s one of them. And when you get to know them, you’ll realize what a shuddering statement this is.