The Minotaur by Barbara Vine

Hired to be an au pair to a schizophrenic man, a Swedish girl watches as interfamilial tensions come to a boiling point, with deadly results.

Barbara Vine (the alter ego of best-selling crime novelist Ruth Rendell) has carved out a niche as deft portrayer of tightly interwoven groups of people who are all set to go poof! in spectacular and surprising ways. The Minotaur concerns a family that revolves itself around the supposed schizophrenia of the only son and heir to the family fortune. His four sisters are dowdy spinsters, save the youngest who has her own fortune and therefore the ability to come and go as she pleases. Kerstin, the narrator, is a young Swedish woman hired to care for John, but she ends up functioning as a witness as John takes a stand towards autonomy that causes the deterioration of the family.

As always, Vine’s characters are exquisitely rendered. She always gives us people that we’ve never seen before, never falling into type and always delving into the substance beneath the surface. For Vine, psychology is plot, yet she never resorts to pat psychoanalytical scenarios.

Vine’s books often employ a non-participating narrator, and Kerstin is no exception. We know from the outset that this has been just a moment in her life, albeit a particularly traumatizing one. However, she’s especially separate: not family, not English, and able to form healthy relationships, and this makes the book feel safer than the book I consider to be Vine’s best, A Dark-Adapted Eye.

Despite this minor quibble, I quite enjoyed this book (as I knew I would). I only wish I’d read it immediately following The Last Unicorn and The Manticore–quite a trilogy of utterly dissimilar books!

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