No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

#75: The Minotaur -- Barbara Vine

Unusually talkative, Ida said to me in the kitchen that she wouldn't mind things being worse as long as they were different. ... "Sometimes I think I'd do anything for a change," she said. (p. 282)

It's the Sixties, though they are not especially Swinging in rural Essex. Kerstin Kvist, 24 years old, Swedish, has taken a position with an aristocratic family to care for their son John -- in his late thirties but with the emotional range of a child, the result of schizophrenia -- or so it's said. Kerstin is determined to help John, and manages to form a bond with him, and with his sisters Ella (who likes pink: everything in her room is pink) and Winifred (who is engaged, so there). Their mother Mrs Cosway is dry and disapproving; the oldest sister, Ida, quite worn down by the strain of living in a dark, decaying mansion miles from anywhere. There's a fourth sister, Zorah, who married an elderly millionaire and is now a merry and glamorous widow, arriving suddenly in her Lotus and zooming off without warning.

And soon after Kerstin arrives at Lydstep Old Hall, another stranger comes to the village: Felix, a disreputable (but soon to be famous) artist, with an eye for the laydeez and especially for Ella. Winifred, engaged to be married to the Rector, disapproves. Kerstin, who has a boyfriend with a flat off the Portobello Road, doesn't trust Felix. And John is happy in his maze -- a maze of books -- and with his facility for numbers, and in sitting and staring at beautiful things, like the Roman glass vase in the drawing-room.

Kerstin, trained as a nurse, gradually becomes convinced that John is not a lunatic or a schizophrenic, but merely suffering from Asperger's Disease (which nobody in 1960s Essex has heard of). She can't help feeling that the 'sleeping pills' Mrs Cosway insists on him taking are detrimental to his well-being. And she's determined to help him regain his faculties, his life ...

The Minotaur is a book full of foreshadowings, hindsight, rationalisation. There's a framing narrative, a chapter at each end of the book set 'Now', in which Kerstin meets a member of the family and is reminded of those distant events. She keeps a diary (in which she also sketches) and that becomes a matter of considerable importance towards the end of the book -- though the narrative is not in diary form, and it's clear that even with hindsight Kerstin doesn't always understand what is going on around her.

I liked the oppressive gloom of the novel, the sense of something about to happen, the vague mythic overtones, the psychological drama acted out between members of the family and those unfortunate enough to come within their reach. And I'd say it wasn't just John who had Asperger's.

No comments:

Post a Comment