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When Stella comes to stay at the old people's home where Jenny works, she immediately becomes a favourite of Jenny's. Jenny senses in her a kindred spirit, and as time progresses, it soon becomes clear that they do have something in common - they have both had affairs with married men. Jenny's is still on-going, although she is married herself, but Stella's ended many years before, seemingly in tragedy and with someone's death. Then Stella hands Jenny the keys to a secret house, one her family know nothing about, which Jenny uses as a lovers' tryst. Will Jenny pluck up the courage to leave her husband for her lover? And will she find out about Stella's own tragic love story?
Barbara Vine, the author of this book, is a psedonym for Ruth Rendell, well-known for her Wexford mysteries. As Barbara Vine, her books tend to have a more mysterious aura - this one, for example, delves into mysticism and charms - and they tend to be more psychological, so that, although this is still a mystery, there is nothing of the police procedural about it. And the mystery does seem to be buried rather deeply in this book - at first glance, it seems to be a story of two women's affairs, and certainly much of the book is taken up with this. There is a mystery though, and it is one that burns slowly, involving the missing wife of Stella's lover.
This slow-burner of a mystery did make the middle of the book pass rather slowly for me - once the characters had been introduced, I found the descriptions of Jenny's affair in particular a bit cumbersome and largely unnecessary to the story as a whole. Thankfully this didn't last for long though, and by the end of the book, I could barely put the book down because I was so desperate to find out what happened. I can imagine that some less patient readers may stall in the middle though.
Jenny tells the story in the first person, although occasional chapters are about Stella, either in the third person or in the form of transcriptions of tapes that she recorded. Jenny is particularly well-drawn. Stuck in a loveless marriage to a childhood sweetheart, she is desperate for some kind of release, which she unexpectedly finds in Ned, who rents a cottage in Jenny's village with his wife and daughter. I couldn't always completely sympathise with her actions, but I did understand them, and her devotion to Stella is very endearing - she really cared for the old lady.
We find out much less about Stella, for obvious reasons - it would have given too much of the mystery away. We do find out that she, too, had a loveless marriage, and had an affair with a man who was married to an actress. Despite this, it always seems as though she is the victim in what happened, and that she has long suffered for the mistakes she made. I found her intriguing, as I'm sure Barbara Vine intended, and, through her affection for Jenny, we get to see her softer side.
Barbara Vine really is good at descriptive work, both of her characters and the setting in which the story takes place. The Brimstone Wedding is set in Norfolk, and we have loads of description of the flat surroundings, the burning stubble in the fields, the rural nature of the village and the buildings that provide the backdrop for the story. All this really helps bring the story to life in a way that most authors of crime fiction can't carry out because they are not good enough writers. Even Jenny and her mother's superstitions are carefully described, which helps set the tone of the story.
I have read a number of books by Barbara Vine (and her alter ego Ruth Rendell), but I think that this is the best that I have read. It really is a slow-burner of a story, but, once hooked, I couldn't put the book down. The last few chapters are particularly good because they hint at what might be explained in the next chapter, but without giving away too much, so that I just had to read on to find out what happened. We then really have to wait until the last few pages to find out the truth. Even better, just when we think that everything is know, there is a final twist on the very last page that sends a chill down the spine.
What impressed me most about this book was that it stayed on my mind while I was reading it and for a few days afterwards. I read a lot of mystery novels like this, once read, immediately forgotten, but I think I am likely to remember this one for quite some time. I am certainly glad that I have my own copy to dip back into when I feel the need. Highly recommended - just don't be put off by the slow it in the middle.
The book is available from play.com for £5.49. Published by Penguin, it has 320 pages. ISBN: 9780140252804
Stella is dying of cancer. Her last days are to be spent at Middleton Hall, a care home for the elderly. Intelligent, articulate and lady-like she adores the butterflies that flitter past her bedroom window, listens to classical music and enjoys regular visits from her doting son and daughter. But Stella is a lady with a story to tell a shocking tale about love and loss. As her final hours draw closer, she takes it upon herself to confide in one of the care assistants, named Jenny, and through a combination of tea-time conversations and private tape recordings, she gradually shares the secrets of her terrible past.
There was something about this book that captivated me from the outset. I didnt buy it. I found it on a bookshelf in a friends flat, and whilst I was waiting for her to get ready one evening, I picked it up and started to read through the first few pages. And that was enough to get me hooked.
The Brimstone Wedding is a subtle, deliberate and yet cautious tale woven around the relationships of two friends. Jenny, the care assistant at Middleton Hall, lives a dual life, splitting her time between a loveless relationship with her husband Mike, and a passionate affair with a local man named Ned. You would imagine that her exciting, dangerous existence couldnt be any more different to the last days of her friend and patient, Stella. But youd be wrong. In Stellas time, she has lived her share of dangerous times and has secrets and stories to tell that gradually draw the two women ever closer together.
Told in the first person, The Brimstone Wedding is never an exciting book to read. At times, it could be accused of dragging its heels and dwelling on unnecessary detail. But the whole tone of the thing is so interesting that you genuinely dont mind sharing Jennys innermost thoughts and fears. As her part of the tale draws towards its rather inevitable conclusion, you feel as though you have developed a bond with her character. You genuinely share her sadness and you feel her excitement felt as though this was your best friend telling you about her latest adventures. The beauty of the first person narrative is that sometimes the text rambles along in a rather incoherent fashion. This makes it characterful. Im sure it was a careful consideration on the authors part, but it works particularly well. As you read through The Brimstone Wedding, you do feel as though someone has downloaded several months of thoughts, copied them onto paper and then allowed you to read them. And you almost feel privileged. Its a very curious thing.
It might not be exciting, but this book is extremely engaging. I guess it would be considered to be a crime thriller, because it contains a crime that is gradually solved. But it isnt a crime thriller in the sense that someone is deliberately trying to piece things together. The Brimstone Wedding is essentially a three hundred-page confession of a long-forgotten crime. This means that you dont marvel at the characters ingenuity or instinct. You arent fed clues in the same way that you might find in a Morse novel. In The Brimstone Wedding there are puzzles and questions and curiosities everywhere. But you never take the time to try and work them out. You wait patiently for Stella to tell you all the answers for herself.
As a character, Jenny is very appealing. I found myself extremely empathetic to her situation. Her husband shows more interest in the new conservatory than he does her, suggesting that it is all for her benefit. Jenny is clearly a very passionate woman, and her affair with Ned is endearing and welcome rather than seedy or damaging. You really do feel as though she deserves those moments of intimacy. Shes also incredibly superstitious. The book is absolutely crammed with Jennys quirky little beliefs about the significance of a certain colour or an unusual natural phenomenon. In many ways, the book is a journey of discovery as she gradually makes up her mind about whether her beliefs are in any way justified.
Stella is equally appealing in similar and yet different ways. Her affinity for Jennys situation gradually becomes understandable and rather like Jenny you do sympathise with her predicament. Coming from a completely different era, Stella is very different from her friend Jenny, but the story weaves itself in such a way that you do eventually conclude that they arent so different after all. And everything weaves itself around a secret house in the fens known only as Molucca. The house and its mysterious past certainly helps to develop the whole air of intrigue about the book and one of my favourite parts of the book is when Jenny first visits the house to explore it for the first time. Every thing she touches, smells or sees seems to have a mysterious significance to the story and as things draw to a close, things all start to fall into place. Why is there a car hidden in the garage and why has it been damaged by fire? Why have pictures been taken from the walls and placed in the drawers? What is the significance of the stained dress in the wardrobe? And why has the bottle of champagne in the refrigerator never been opened?
Nature is also an extremely important part of this book. Its everywhere. Set in the Fens, the narrator goes to great pains to describe the countryside, noting the change in colour of the leaves and the movements of the farmers in the fields. To start with, you feel as though its really only there to try and make the thing pretty, but gradually I started to decide that the author was trying to suggest some empathy between what we do and the world around us. There are some very direct, obvious links to the fields and fens that become clear by the end, but the whole thing has a very wholesome feel about it. Jennys mood is dictated by the world around her a bath full of ladybirds is a mystery, whereas a single magpie is a tragedy. You know that this cant go on. And you know that it wont.
The Brimstone Wedding would make a very awkward dramatisation or film. Comprised of huge sequences of flashback and reminiscence, it would be hard to engage the audience on film in the same way that the book can. Nonetheless, it wouldnt surprise me if it was (or even already had been) dramatised. Although the author is credited as Barbara Vine, it wasnt until I read the notes at the beginning that I realised that it was in actual fact Ruth Rendell under a different name (Im slow work with me on this). And there is something characteristically Ruth Rendell about this book.
Contrary to what I had expected, I enjoyed The Brimstone Wedding. The controlled, subtle story telling was different to what I am used to reading and the tale is told in a particularly absorbing fashion. If you were looking for thrills and excitement then this would not be a good choice. But theres a good story to be told here, and I wouldnt hesitate to recommend this. Val Hennessy from the Daily Mail describes the book perfectly in one line when she says:
The icy hand takes off its glove in the very first sentence.
ISBN 0-14-025280-0 published in 1995.