The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine

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The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A near-perfect read, with a fine and finely-written look at the consequences of horsing about with those you shouldn't. The only thing noticeable beyond the effortless qualities of the prose is a possible lack of neutrality, and misguided setting.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0141036212

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A young married mother is snatched while walking down her street, bundled into the back of a car, bound and gagged. As the vehicle tries to get through the London traffic, there is a dreadful accident. The woman and one of the men is killed, the other left comatose. But this is no real kidnap – instead the whole thing is a ruse invented as a sub/dom game by her lover for her birthday, now gone horribly wrong. Oh, and the boyfriend happens to be an up-and-coming Tory MP.

The characters given the role of telling us this in a much more subtle and mysterious way are Robin, the MP's brother-in-law, shocked of course by what has gone on, especially when it was his and his wife, Iris's house the birthday was, for secrecy's sake, supposed to end up at; and Jane, the girlfriend used by the deceased woman, Hebe, to provide her with alibis every fortnight when she met her lover Ivan. Jane may have been used a bit more regularly, as well, perhaps as plainer contrast when the pair went shopping, or lunched.

It is one instance of the brilliant clarity and subtlety of the book that the narration can pass between both characters with no hiccup and no problem. The swap in teller is instant, the distinction brilliant, from vocabulary, to class, character, confidence…

Indeed the whole book resonates with such assuredness, making the reading contrastingly easier than the reviewing normally is. For I am left with the thankless task of writing just as convincingly. What follows this awful occurrence is written with perfect authority. Never does anything seem forced into the plotting, never does the story flag up anything as of importance for future reference. Never does anyone or anything appear out of kilter. And somehow you really have to step back and consider before you realise how discretely artful the book must be to be so invisible. The writing never gets in the way of the storytelling.

Moreover the novel covers a lot more ground, and a few more characters than I mention here. Consider the passage of a more sensible birthday present gifted Hebe for that birthday. Consider the moral stances held by the bewildered partnership of Rob and Iris. Meditate on the whole, well-realised political milieu Ivan was coming through, and react in innumerable ways – scoff, sympathy, sneer, shirk – at the ways he retracts into a temporary shell, and hides the truth from his bosses, the police (who at least temporarily find what they think was a real intended victim for the artificial kidnap), and the press.

In fact, the only thing preventing this book from getting the full five stars is that political factor. The book is set in the early-to-mid 1990s, with Thatcher soon to leave, and Major soon to underwhelm. This might allow for a certain plot strand to come in, which I didn't find particularly worthwhile. It does allow for a further depth to the worry Ivan is caused/ is causing himself, but for too long I was wanting it to be better justified.

The near-historical setting also seems a little unnecessary. That and the above allow for certain factual people and events to come into the story in a minor way, but the invention of new characters, happenings, victims, all rests a little uneasily.

Beyond that is the obvious fact that this is a Barbara Vine, who, under her more regular name Ruth Rendell, is a Labour Peer, writing rather scathingly at times about a slightly sleazy Tory MP. Of course she had to define her character's politics, and he had to belong to one or the other party, but it does seem at times that Vine is prodding with a very broad stick, and having too much fun with her insincerity.

I might be reading too much into that, however. There is certainly a fine sense of humour here, beyond the tragedy and all the wealth of repercussions it leads to over the months and years of narrative time. Never is anything allowed to become too broad, though, and the author is perfectly in control of all that occurs.

It is that scope in the ideally realised outfall that the book is focussing on, and that will be the defining memory of any reader. Vine, of course, if she writes mystery or thriller books, does them in a much more off-kilter, genre-stretching way than Rendell (or perhaps anyone else). There is a thriller element to this, but one focussing on the superlative characterisation and the unknown element this particular sword leaves dangling above Ivan's head.

I marvelled at the range of things one misguided example of horse-play led to, the breadth of people affected in such ways by it, and the perfect lucidity, compelling verity and not-a-thing-out-of-place-ness the telling of it is given. I'm quite sure you will to.

The book reminded me strongly, yet remained perfectly distinct from, The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver. Both have the finely clipped, controlled and measured style, the expansive vocabulary, and the themes of 'what if?', 'if only…'. Both are well worth a high Bookbag rating, and are both very easy to recommend to the reader of slightly meatier fare.

I would like to thank Penguin for sending the Bookbag a review copy.

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