The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

A woman haunted by the uncertain onset of a genetic disease sees a woman from her past, and struggles to fill in the gaps between truth and lies from a time in her life marked by violence and murder.

House of Stairs is yet another knockout from Barbara Vine, the British crime writer who pens the Inspector Wexford mysteries as Ruth Rendell. The tease here is that Vine isn’t going to reveal the identity of the murder victim until the final pages, and she pulls it off completely. The reveal is a tremendous shock, and Vine earns every ounce of it.

The protagonist, Elizabeth, lives in the House of Stairs, a folly of a mansion owned by her beloved aunt Cosette. The House of Stairs is filled with wealthy Cosette’s hangers-on, including Cosette’s younger (and boorish) lover. Elizabeth hovers between wanting to protect Cosette from her generosity and naivete, and from an innate revulsion over Cosette’s age-inappropriate behavior. Meanwhile, Elizabeth has become intrigued by, even obsessed with, Bell, a tall, cool blonde who reminds Elizabeth of Henry James’s description of Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove. Initially, I thought that Elizabeth was much younger, a teenager like Faith was during the crucial events in A Dark-Adapted Eye. And that’s something I really admire about Vine–she allows for openness in her narratives where we bring in our own misconceptions about the events, and then gradually tightens the noose squeeze out everything we think that’s incorrect. Vine exhibits masterful control over her narratives in a way that I find delicious.

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