Mysterious pasts and damaging loves in Barbara Vine’s The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy

*Long post, with spoilers*

Gerald Candless wasn’t all that he claimed to be. He was a Booker Prize-winning, best-selling author, but he certainly wasn’t the man everyone thought he was. This shocking fact is unearthed when his daughter Sarah starts working on a memoir after his death, in Barbara Vine’s The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy. She isn’t the only person making discoveries about Gerald, though. His widow, Ursula, too is beginning to get some insight into why her marriage to him was, in private, such a colossal failure.

A mysterious past is a great hook for a suspense novel, and Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell, in fact) is very clever at unspooling the story at a deliberate but compelling pace. There are many things about Gerald that strike the reader as odd; for instance, his obsession with having a large family and his unhealthy devotion to his two daughters. Also mystifying is his total disregard for his wife. He doesn’t physically or verbally abuse her, but he emotionally cripples her. After the birth of their second daughter Hope, he completely stops having any intimate relations with her. He makes it obvious that he looks on Ursula as an inferior. It’s strange, because the reader might find Ursula to be on the passive side, but she’s never bad or undeserving of love. Perhaps, if her husband had shown her some support and love, she would have blossomed into a more vibrant personality.

But the worst thing that he does is turn her daughtesr against her. Not by telling them things about her, no – that’s not his way. Children are sensitive and they pick up behavioural signals so easily. Sarah and Hope see their beloved, indulgent, story-telling daddy treat their mother like she doesn’t matter and they do exactly that. Ursula feels hurt at first, but eventually she achieves some emotional distance. By the end of the book, Hope is no longer on speaking terms with her mother, but it’s not like Ursula cares. She has moved on.

Sarah, meanwhile, is working hard to uncover information about her father’s early life, a period she knows shockingly little about. Her initial sleuthing brings a startling fact to light: her father wasn’t always Gerald Candless. He adopted the name sometime just before he published his first book. What his original name was, who is family were and where they come from, and why he completely abandoned his former life – these are the questions that Sarah must find answers to.

Ruth Rendell, writer

Ruth Rendell (Image via Wikipedia)

I must confess that when I picked up The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, I had no idea who Barbara Vine is. I am a whodunit fan, but I have so far limited myself to Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a few random authors. It was only later that I found out that Barbara Vine is Ruth Rendell. I had read a Rendell mystery back when I was 14 or 15, but it had disturbed me so deeply that I quickly blanked out even its name. And of course, I never picked up another Rendell, which is sad, because I believe I’m made of sterner stuff now and should be able to deal with the level of psychological perversion and brutality that exist in her novels. (I’m also the same person who was so devastated by the first season of Dexter that I refused to watch the next few seasons for a good long time. Yes, I’m that sensitive, but that’s a story for another day.)

Anyway, the blurb on the back intrigued me. The book kept me up way past my bedtime on more than two nights in a row, and it had been a long time since that had happened to me. I found that although Rendell likes to dwell on details, she does so in an unobtrusive manner. She’s a master of atmosphere and mood. I found myself raging against Gerald, and even after I had guessed his secret and felt some sympathy for his situation, I found it hard to forgive him for ruining another’s life. In fact, the characters are all pretty compelling – and unsavoury in different ways — and I found myself reacting strongly to all of them. I wanted to shake Ursula out of her stupor, I wanted to yell at Gerald and I really, really wanted to give Hope a good slap across her pretty face. Sarah, I found, is the most bearable of the lot, as she’s the only one who shows some willingness to adapt her long-held notions. She realizes that her idolized Daddy was a person beyond the man who had always been there for her. She even manages to feel sympathy for her mother and discovers that she herself is quite the intellectual phony. These are all massive changes, but Sarah holds together well and comes across as the most mature character in the book. She’s easily my favourite thing about the book.

I also liked how sensitively Rendell has dealt with homosexuality in this book. It’s a big subject here – the key to the whole plot, in fact – and much is written about how homosexuals were vilified or put in prison for trying to pursue a lifestyle of their choice. You’ll guess by the end in what way it affects Gerald, but what will keep you going is the need to find out why.

Now the things that I didn’t like: I found it hard to believe that Gerald was such a good writer that he impressed both critics and the public. Excerpts from his books open each chapter and they’re insipid, to say the least. One example is this:

“It is an error to say the eyes have expression. Eyebrows and eyelids, lips, the planes of the face, all these are indicators of emotion. The eyes are merely coloured liquid in a glass”

Or read this:

“A man believes everything he reads in the newspapers until he finds an item about himself which is a web of lies. This makes him doubt, but not for long, and he soon reverts to his old faith in the printed word.”

The tone in these is stiff and rather ponderous. It’s a tone one expects to find in a novel of Victorian vintage, not in one that was published, and found great success, in the 60s and the 70s. It’s clear that while Rendell has found her own authorial voice, she finds it difficult to imitate or imagine another author’s voice.

Another thing which didn’t sit well with me was the bizarre subplot with Sarah and Adam Foley, who have brutal, degrading sexual encounters in parking lots and anonymous hotels. Sarah seems to enjoy wearing all the black leather and velvet and dark make-up, but what is the point of it all? Is it to show us how shattered and rudder-less Sarah is after her father’s death that she enjoys being abused and insulted by a man and then having sex with him? Perhaps, but I believe that not everyone who enjoys S&M is seeking to subconsciously punish themselves. In that sense, the use of S&M becomes a cliché, and a bad one at that.

I also disliked the end, when editor Robert Postle reads Romney’s manuscript and figures out that it is written by Gerald about himself.  Would it be that easy for an editor – no matter how close he was to one of his star writers – to know that? I’m not sure and that is why I think it would have made more sense for him to have rubbished the manuscript as a poor imitation of Gerald Candless’ work.

So would I recommend this book? Certainly, since it contains some riveting psychological explorations and is quite brutal in how it exposes human behaviour. It’s a nice, fat book with plenty of meandering explanations and ruminations, but don’t be put off by them. It’s a very, very fast read and perfect for a weekend at home.

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2 thoughts on “Mysterious pasts and damaging loves in Barbara Vine’s The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy

  1. The editor had Sarah’s manuscript also with a lot of the same information as Romney’s manuscript and in particular the names matched up.

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