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

Saturday, June 09, 2018

2018/30: The Girl Next Door -- Ruth Rendell

‘I just asked if you thought we’d led a dull life.’
‘Well, I don’t think so. I’d have said we’ve had a happy life, not very adventurous, but those sort of lives are full of trouble. We haven’t committed adultery or gone in for domestic violence or anything like that. We’ve brought up our children decently. What’s wrong with that?’
‘Nothing,’ he said, but he thought, ‘Everything.’ [p. 35]
The skeletal remains of two hands, one a man's and one a woman's, are found in a buried tin box. They date from the Second World War, and news of their discovery stir childhood memories in the people who grew up playing in the tunnels beneath the leafy suburb of Theydon Bois. The protagonists, friends and playmates during the war, are in their seventies or eighties now. Their relationships have grown and changed with them -- but the distant world in which they grew up comes vividly to life as memories resurface.

There's little mystery to the murder (it is described in the opening chapter of the novel). What only gradually unfurls is the web of relationships -- friendships, feuds, romances and betrayals -- between the children, and the ways in which their childhood experiences have shaped them. There's an underlying continuo of the difference between the world then and the world now: house prices, knowing the names of flowers, not telephoning after 9pm, having hobbies. And yet not everything has changed: people have always been driven by physical desire, jealousy, love and hate. And those urges don't necessarily vanish in old age.

What I liked most about this novel was that nearly all of the protagonists are past retirement age: Alan and Rosemary, married for nearly half a century; Daphne, Alan's old flame from before he went to university; Lewis, still wondering about his Uncle James' fate; Michael, who still fears and resents his emotionally distant father. Some of them are physically or mentally frail, but they are all strongly characterised individuals whose age doesn't define them. Some find themselves less emotional as they pass seventy: others ... not so much. I hadn't expected to find The Girl Next Door hopeful or life-affirming: I was charmed, surprised and interested.

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