Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0
Argobot

The Idle Book Club 26: A Sight for Sore Eyes

15 posts in this topic

I really enjoyed this! I wasn't sure what to think going into it, as I had never read anything by Rendell before. The characterization of Teddy is really interesting, up until he kills Keith, I was very unsure of how I was supposed to feel about him.

 

I'm interested to know what people thought of the Francine thread of things, particularly her destruction of the letters. This felt like a point Rendell was trying to get across that went over my head.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thoughts from almost halfway through:

 

This is my first experience of a Ruth Rendell novel, and it's not at all what I expected. The pacing is very curious. It feels very slow; I can kind of see how everything is coming together but it takes an awful long time for the book to gets its ducks in order. But somehow it isn't wordy - it covers a lot of time and space in relatively few words. Not many books would bother to chart the upbringing of the principal characters in such painstaking real time detail.

 

I was surprised to find several of the characters living in a large semi-detached house in Ealing, which is an unassuming borough of London where I've lived for pretty much my whole life. So now I picture them living in my old family home, which is strange - but weirdly fitting for a portrait of middle-class anxiety.

 

The book has a lot to say about class and I am not sure all of it is good. I may write more about this later, but some of it seems redolent of a certain tabloid atmosphere of moral panic that I mostly associate with the late 90s and early 00s. I'm not sure yet whether the novel is best read as a document of that thing, or an example of it; or both, perhaps? I've not finished it yet. I look forward to thinking about it more.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Finished. I thought this was really quite impressive. It's a very well-crafted piece of fiction; as a character study it's somehow constantly engaging, even though there isn't really much in the way of mystery to the plot. As a portrait of what it is like to grow up in Britain, it would make for an interesting comparison with Never Let Me Go. Both have a relatively 'plain' prose style, though Ishiguro does something quite different with it. 

 

Spoiler

It's interesting that the characters in this book are divided into three very neat class-based categories: working class (Keith, Teddy, etc); middle class (Richard, Julia, Francine); upper class (Harriet, Franklin). Part of the entertainment of the novel comes from comparing and contrasting the traits of these classes against one another.

 

But there's also a sense in which the novel is picking out the stereotypical worst features of that class and holding them up to the light. At times there is what feels like a very thinly-veiled contempt towards the Grex* family in particular. It is not just that they are abusive towards Teddy, but they have to be characterised in a way intended to provoke disgust in the reader. And the author's idea of what might be disgusting is very specific:

 

'During his gestation his mother had lived on croissants with butter, whipped-cream doughnuts, salami, streaky bacon, fried eggs, chocolate bars, sausages and chips with everything. She had smoked about ten thousand eight hundred cigarettes and drunk many gallons of Guinness, cider, Babycham and sweet sherry…'

 

'There was always abundant food in the house and large meals of the TV-dinner and chip-shop variety were served…

 

As a literary effect, I actually quite enjoy Rendell's tendency to suddenly digress into writing lists of very specific things. I really like this list of miscellaneous junk, for example:

 

'An old Mason-Pearson hairbrush, its stiff black bristles clogged with Eileen’s equally wiry but greying hair, a scent bottle in which the perfume had grown yellow and viscid with age, a comb whose teeth were gummed together with dark-grey grease, a cardboard box that had once held Terry’s All Gold chocolates, a glass ashtray containing pins, hairgrips, scraps of cotton wool, a dead fly, the top of a ballpoint pen and, horribly, a piece of broken fingernail. And all this sitting on a greyed and stained crocheted lace mat, rumpled in the middle and curled at its fringed edges, like an island in a dusty sea after a nuclear explosion.'

 

But I think we are supposed to find this repulsive. It's never clear whether it's supposed to be a symptom of their wickedness, or a cause. A certain amount of this contempt is applied to Julia as well, and to Angela; but the novel makes the Grex family out to be so much worse perhaps because the implication is that they haven't done anything to earn their idleness. Teddy, in contrast, emerges as a borderline sympathetic figure because of his dedication to health, cleanliness and beauty; a Protestant work ethic combined with a Catholic aesthetic sensibility.

 

Submerged in all of this is the idea that the working classes could be 'improved' by their exposure to great works of art and human culture. But the novel subverts this because while Teddy develops a fascination with arts and crafts, this does nothing to save him - it only leaves him arrested in a state of perpetual adolescent anger at the state of the world. Francine, on the other hand, feels a little under-developed; she is never quite able to escape the orbit of her family, and once Julia is gone the book doesn't quite seem to know what to do with her.

 

And yet I think the portrait of the kind of abuse that Julia inflicts on Francine is the most disturbing part of the book. Perhaps the fact that Francine is rarely described outside of the context of her trauma is exactly the point. There's something profound and disturbing in that recurring image of Francine approaching the front door of her home, only for Julia to open it at the last moment...

The disposal of the letters is an odd thing. That whole part of the plot felt to me like an abandoned sub-plot, cut perhaps for brevity; it's rather a nice twist that comes at the end, though it was one that I guessed at first before subsequently forgetting about it for a couple of hundred pages. It felt like a clever tribute to the crime genre from a novel which isn't really a crime novel.

 

(* - Their name is 'Grex' in the British edition, but I've read somewhere that this was changed to 'Brex' in the American edition...?)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The family is called Brex in the American edition! What an odd change.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Re-reading this six years after I first read it, I found it just as gripping and compelling as I did the first time, but find myself less sure about what to do with the class angle. It feels brilliantly observed, but also so full-bore as to be practically malicious in its examinations, particularly with respect to the Brex (Grex? weird!) family. In some ways I wish the book had been written later, so I would be able to find a more widely available body of writing about it, but on the other hand I'm glad it wasn't, because I suspect that body of writing would be largely consumed by breathless takes.

 

As far as meticulously plotted crime writing, man, Rendell clearly knows her stuff. I think in a lot of cases a story this tidily wrapped up would grate on me, but Rendell takes such a workmanlike approach, carefully laying down every brick and covering every seam, just like Teddy does, that by the time everything concludes, even my second time reading it, I was utterly rapt. It felt far more earned than one would expect.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Rendell meticulously sealed us into her story without us realizing it was happening. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Rendell's publisher was obviously concerned Americans would mistake this for hit 1998 platformer Grex: Enter the Grecko

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
3 minutes ago, Mike Danger said:

Rendell's publisher was obviously concerned Americans would mistake this for hit 1998 platformer Grex: Enter the Grecko

god I love this joke.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The episode is up!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Listening to the episode now. I laughed way more than I should have at "...I guess Franklin just gets a happy ending?"

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

It's true though! Unless that's undone in the sequel Chris talked about...

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Yeah, I'm curious about that sequel but I'm also the kind of person that can't skip to book 20-something in a series, even if they're probably-loosely-interconnected mysteries, so I'll probably get to it in about 10 years.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I just finished the book. For the most part, I really liked it. I'm angling to read Blood Meridian for the first time next, so I was hoping for something a bit lighter before I dive into that, but I enjoyed this book a lot anyway. It's a pretty grim read, but in a way that's so pulpy and gothic that it reminds me of the TV series Hannibal and that really eases the burden of some of the content in the novel. 

 

The biggest problem I had with the book is the cuteness or somewhat forced symmetry of the plot. I liked the way that all of this information is introduced and slowly tied together, but at the same time once the main course of the story was completed little details like the discovery of Jennifer's true killer and Agnes leaving the ring in the same way Eileen found it was just a little too tidy and unnecessarily cheeky for my taste. 

 

I'm excited to listen to the podcast now that I've finished the book! 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Still working through this one.  I am half way through and spent most of that time not liking the book then suddenly it kind of clicked for me.  I am interested to hear their take on it when I finish.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!


Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.


Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0