I took Barbara Vine’s The Minotaur out of the library. It happened to catch my eye and the blurb on the jacket sounded really interesting.
As soon as Kerstin Kvist arrives at remote, ivy-covered Lydstep Old Hall in Essex, she feels like a character in a gothic novel. A young nurse fresh out of school, Kerstin has been hired for a position with the Cosway family, residents of the Hall for generations. She is soon introduced to her “charge” John Cosway, a thirty-nine-year-old man whose strange behavior is vaguely explained by his mother and sisters as part of the madness that runs in the family.
Weeks go by at Lydstep with little to mark the passage of time beyond John’s daily walks and the amusingly provincial happenings that engross the Cosway women, and Kerstin occupies her many free hours at the Hall reading or making entries into her diary. Meanwhile, bitter wrangling among Julia Cosway and her four grown daughters becomes increasingly evident. But this is just the most obvious of the tensions that charge the old remote estate, with its sealed rooms full of mystery. Soon Kerstin will find herself in possession of knowledge she will wish she’d never attained, secrets that will propel the occupants of Lydstep Old Hall headlong into sexual obsession, betrayal, and, finally, murder.
Sounds great, right?
It was not so great. Whoever writes these blurbs does a better job than the author hyping the book. The concept was good, the execution was…meh.
None of the characters, minus the narrator, was very likable. Julia was the aging matriarch who disparaged her daughters and drugged her son, John, to control him. John probably had some kind of high functioning Asperger syndrome, or maybe schizophrenia. Ida was the oldest and, more or less, relegated to the role of housewife and caretaker of the family, doing all the cooking and cleaning. Ella and Winifred were, more or less, the same character but one – Winifred – was engaged to be married to the town vicar. Winifred was a caterer, Ella was a teacher. Both were shallow, superficial, and ended up in a sexual relationship with an “artist” who moved into town and who the narrator, Kerstin, nails as a playboy pretty much the moment she meets him. Zorah, the youngest, is a wealthy widow who flaunts money and uses it to hold power over the rest of the family. It’s revealed later why she’s so bitter, but in some ways, she’s much better than her mom and sisters, because she actually cares about her brother and tries to get him help that he needs, rather than just drug him to keep him docile.
The action proceeds much too slowly to be considered particularly interesting. I didn’t find it particularly suspenseful. The characters were so annoying and horrible to Kerstin that it was hard to tolerate – only John pronounced her name the way she asked, as “Shastin,” which was the Norwegian pronunciation, apparently – and only Zorah’s story was worth it’s background, and I’m convinced it’s because she wasn’t in the book a lot.
There were a lot of Gothic elements – a old, crumbling home, a curse, “romance,” etc… – but they were grossly exaggerated and a lot of them didn’t matter. Yes, there was tragedy and secrets and you did get a sense of claustrophobia, but it just wasn’t enough to make the novel worth it.
The climax of the book was also a total letdown, as well as completely infuriating and upsetting…at least to me, but I never liked bullies.
“Barbara Vine” is a pen name of Ruth Rendell, and under this pen name, she writes these “psychological thrillers.” I’ve heard a lot of good things about Barbara Vine, including from Stephen King. When I googled, I found he’d said of her, “best suspense novelist with undercurrents of horror.” I suppose her other novels must have been more effective. I started with this one. If I didn’t know that her other novels are widely admired, I’d feel no need to ever read another.