The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine

While working on her PhD thesis on unmarried mothers in British literature, a young woman finds disturbing parallels between a violent work of fiction from the mid-20th century and her own life living with her gay brother.

Everything I love about Barbara Vine is present in The Child’s Child: a haunting atmosphere, complicated characters, and a sense of urgency to the storytelling that has nothing to do with a jam-packed plot.

The book opens with Grace, a PhD candidate living a peaceful life with her gay brother Andrew, until her brother invites his boyfriend to move in with them. Grace and James don’t get along, and he’s especially scornful of her thesis work exposing the plight of the unwed mother in English history. He says that the unwed mothers suffered nowhere near as badly as gay men were, and won’t hear anything to the contrary. Things get worse when Andrew and James witness the fatal beating of a friend upon exiting a gay club.

Grace decides to take a break from her thesis to read an unpublished manuscript called “The Child’s Child,” written by an ancestor of James’s who had published many critically acclaimed works. Because this book touched openly on homosexuality, it was never even considered for publication. Grace has been asked to read it to see if it could be published now. The story is that of Maud, a young women who falls pregnant at the age of 15 in WWII England. Her secretly gay older brother steps in with an unorthodox plan to save her, but that plan becomes the undoing of both of them and has repercussions for everyone around them.

The book-within-a-book is especially enthralling because it feels like Vine is channeling Patricia Highsmith, writing the book that Highsmith, herself a lesbian, could never have written in her own day. It’s so dark and tricky and hermetic and Vine does it exceptionally well. I was less satisfied by the framing story, which felt unfinished when the book was ended. So it’s not my favorite book by Vine, but I enjoyed it immensely.

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