Book review: Imperfect pitch

The Chimney-Sweeper's Boy by Barbara Vine Viking, pounds 15.99
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Barbara Vine's literary ancestry can be traced back through Daphne du Maurier to Wilkie Collins: she is our our greatest exponent of the modern "novel-with-a-secret". The Chimney-Sweeper's Boy, the ninth Vine novel (while Ruth Rendell's output also continues apace), concerns a recently dead novelist, Gerald Candless, his widow Ursula, daughters Sarah and Hope, and his mysterious origins. The obituaries give the bare data: born Ipswich, 1926; only child of a printer and a nurse; worked on provincial newspapers before becoming a published author in the autumn of 1955.

So far, so unastonishing. But then Candless's publisher persuades the elder daughter Sarah, a lecturer in English, to start work on a memoir of her father. Soon she establishes that Gerald Candless, son of George and Kathleen, died of meningitis aged five. This is the first shock administered to Sarah (and the reader): exactly whose progeny is she? She and her sister are doubly cast adrift - bereaved, but also bewildered.

It's surprising how many elements this novel has in common with the sensational bestsellers of the 1860s: the switch of identity, the marriage in name only, the skeleton in the closet, the woman with a murdered son and a daughter in a nunnery, the sexual drive and its outlets. Where it differs is in its tone, which is the opposite of fervid and exclamatory. Barbara Vine's narrative manner is adroit and dispassionate, as she recounts the detective work undertaken to get to the bottom of Gerald Candless and his acquired persona.

As usual, Vine surrounds the enticing enigma with other, subsidiary stories: of Candless's wife Ursula, a diffident girl whose dream of married life is unfulfilled; of Hope and especially Sarah, as she struggles to make sense of her discoveries; and the stories of one or two families, including one of Irish immigrants, in 1930s Ipswich. All this is marshalled as inexorably as ever in the hands of the expert in intrigue, and overlaid with the usual affiliated motifs: here, the tiresome and not-quite-benign "Game" inflicted by Gerald and his daughters on first-time visitors; and the emblem devised by the author for his dust-jackets, the black moth known as the Chimney Sweeper's Boy. Its implications are not only Shakespearean, but bring to mind the nursery maxim about touching pitch and being defiled.

The Chimney-Sweeper's Boy is about the power of taboos, about transgressions, guilts, deceptions, horrors, atonements, upsets and upheavals, all interspersed with episodes of ordinariness to make an irresistible package. These days, we expect sensation fiction to be worldly, intricate, confident and gripping. Barbara Vine fulfils all the requirements.

Comments