In praise of older books: A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) (1987)

Week 29: Julie Parsons on her favourite books

Ruth Rendell: her skill is to reveal only what needs to be revealed. She plays the story out like a fishing line. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty

Ruth Rendell: her skill is to reveal only what needs to be revealed. She plays the story out like a fishing line. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty

 

How to write suspense, to bring the reader from unknowing to knowing. Read Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell’s alter ego. Learn, as I did. The perfect pacing, the step by step revelations. The who, the what and the why.

The hot summer of 1976. Adam Verne-Smith, aged 19, inherits his great-uncle’s house. Wyvis Hall is big, beautiful and deep in the Sussex countryside. That’s how the story begins. But it’s not how the book begins. The book begins 10 years later, with the finding of bones: a woman and a baby. Then a casual encounter at Heathrow Airport. Two men, “the eyes of each of them held the other’s for. . . an instant of time.” And everything changed.

There were four of them that summer; Adam, Rufus, Shiva, Vivien. The house would be a commune. Heat, sun, food, drink, sex. Heaven. And then there was Zosie. Rufus picked her up, hitch-hiking. He called her a “waif”. Adam read from the dictionary: “ ‘A piece of property which is found ownerless, and which if unclaimed . . . falls to the lord of the manor.’ ”

The tension is unbearable. Adam, Rufus and Shiva, 10 years later, remembering, fearing. Who will break first?

But it’s Adam who falls for Zosie. His desire, his passion. Zosie, with feathery markings on her abdomen and thighs. She may look like a beautiful child, but she has given birth. So where is the baby?

The story unfolds. Vine’s skill is to reveal only what needs to be revealed. She plays the story out like a fishing line. She reels the reader in. She plays it out some more. The tension is unbearable. Adam, Rufus and Shiva, 10 years later, remembering, fearing. Who will break first? Who will reveal what really happened in the scorching summer of 1976?

The ending creeps up on us. We learn the identity of the bones. We think we know everything. But Vine, as always, surprises. As the final scene plays out, the pieces click neatly into place. Now we understand. Such a sense of satisfaction as we close the book with a sigh of pleasure.

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