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Barbara Vine - The Chimney-Sweeper's Boy
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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Fri Feb 05, 2010 2:38 pm    Post subject: Barbara Vine - The Chimney-Sweeper's Boy  Reply with quote

This is the place to talk about The Chimney-Sweeper's Boy by Barbara Vine. Spoilers necessarily follow.

I'd expected a psychological thriller, but in fact it's more of a mystery, and not a whodunnit but a whydunnit. After the celebrated author Gerald Candless dies, one of his two adoring daughters starts to write his biography and uncovers a secret from his past - Candless was born John Ryan (not the late Captain Pugwash author, though that would have been a neat twist - and his middle name was Gerald...), and changed his identity in his mid-20s. The gradual revelation of his reasons for doing so fills the rest of the book.

By and large, I found the book compelling and involving, although the gruesome daughters were problematic (i.e. irritating) - nasty, spoilt Hope with her unaccountably lovely boyfriend, and Sarah with her penchant for dodgy sex in car parks (and why? Perhaps to provide a contrast with the happiness she eventually finds with nice but unhygienic Jason).

The story of Gerald Candless, as eventually revealed, was convincing, at least up to a point. In books of this kind, I suspect believability of outcome is paramount, otherwise the reader feels cheated. The depiction of the pre-war world where homosexuality is taboo was well done, and treated with a sensitivity I hadn't expected. One feels sympathy for Candless's widow Ursula, of course, for her unfulfilled marriage (and happily she meets a nice man soon after being widowed), but also eventually for Candless, who, though his treatment of his wife is inexcusable, is shown not to have been able to lead the life he would have wanted. His guilt at not having intervened when his gay brother Desmond's life was at stake is also moving, though it does make the resolution of his story predictable.

The ending of the book struck a false chord with me. While impressed by the clever conceit of the writer Titus Romney having submitted Candless's final manuscript to the publisher Robert Postle as his own work, the very final insinuation that Postle has found the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle of Gerald Candless's life I didn't like. I'd have preferred it if Postle had failed to twig, dismissed Romney's new work as rubbish, and chucked it in the bin. That way, the reader knows the truth but the characters in the novel don't, and sleeping dogs are allowed to lie. The mystery of Gerald Candless dies with him. I would have found that a much more pleasing conclusion, not to mention satisfyingly bathetic - like the ending of Of Mice and Men. It could have been achieved impressively in a single paragraph.

It must have been fun for Barbara Vine to create an imaginary body of work for her fictional creation. The excerpts from Candless's novels, however, are dull. It's difficult to account for his own popularity. I hesitate to criticise Vine's skills as a writer, particularly as I'm fully aware I couldn't write books like hers even if I tried, but I wasn't totally convinced of her ability to create an imaginary authorial voice. Candless's own obituary from the Times, which she quotes, also set off alarm bells: "His novels were unusual in that, though literary fiction, they were, at any rate in the middle years, both popular with the public and highly regarded by critics." There's something about the use of the term 'literary fiction' in that context that rings false. There were a number of other places where I spotted mistakes and infelicities of style I wouldn't expect from a writer as highly thought of as Vine. I don't like to carp, so will leave it there for the moment, but seeing a quotation like "Simply put, Vine is one of the greatest writers ever" (Scott Turow) inside the front cover immediately put me on my guard, as it would with any living writer.

Broadly speaking, then, I liked the book. It was fun trying to second-guess what was going to happen, and I hope I will read more Barbara Vine in future. We may have some at home I can browse through.


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Caro



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
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Location: Owaka, New Zealand

PostPosted: Fri Feb 05, 2010 8:33 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I thought I might check if this was in our library and it is but both the ordinary copy and the large print are out.  Indeed of the 25 Barbara Vines we have 8 of them are out, which is pretty impressive.  Let's check Ruth Rendell.  Six out out of 87 of her books/talking books.

May keep an eye on it coming back perhaps - I like both whodunnits and whydunnits, though I didn't like Elizabeth George's What Came Before He Shot Her? which had no mystery at all, but was just a study of a socially and educationally isolated family falling into disintegration.

Cheers, Caro.


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Evie
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PostPosted: Sat Feb 06, 2010 2:07 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Chibiabos, thanks so much for posting that!  Shame Miranda is not around to discuss this with us, as I would really have liked to hear her input.

I am not sure how much of my reaction was a result of unfulfilled expectations, but I was quite disappointed with this book.  The title was very off-putting - some of Vine's books have good titles, but this sounded a bit Catherine Cookson or Helen Forrester - I was hoping the content might rise above the title, but it didn't really.

It was also billed as a 'psychological thriller', but to me it was neither psychological nor a thriller.  One of the reviews on the back said that it was 'one of the most frightening novels I have ever read...' - what was remotely frightening about it?  Both that reviewer and Scott Turow must have been reading something else (though the Scott Turow quote is extraordinary!  Perhaps he doesn't read much).

It was pretty obvious from early on what was going on and even how it was going to be resolved, so the success of the book depended on Barbara Vine's skill in making the characters work and making the story truly intriguing - she managed neither.  I didn't even feel sorry for Ursula, though the two daughters were so ghastly that I felt sorrier for her for having such appalling children.  Sarah was completely unconvincing as an English lecturer - and what was the point of all that nasty, cruel sex with Adam Foley?  And her ultimate relationship with Jason was completely unbelievable.

I am afraid the main disappointment, though, was that I expected Barbara Vine to be a writer of good, literary prose, but on the strength of this book, she certainly isn't.  Very dull, and the kind of writer who spells everything out while at the same time expecting the reader to feel some kind of suspense.

As you say, Chibiabos, the excerpts from Gerald's books were very dull, and that rendering of Titus/Gerald's work at the end gave no indication of why he would be highly regarded - it has no literary value at all.

I also wasn't sure right at the end what Robert Postle had discovered that neither Sarah nor Titus had.

I wanted to like this, as I have quite enjoyed her adaptations on TV, and do like a mild thriller - but if it hadn't been for the group read, I would have given up on it - it was just very boring.  Though in the TV series, it is true that the characters are always nasty, there is rarely anyone nice in them.  Sorry - I can't think of anything good to say about it, except that I like the name Ursula!

And I had none of your sympathy for Gerald, Chibiabos - he was utterly selfish in marrying, and staying married to, Ursula, and turning her children against her.


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Evie
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PostPosted: Sat Feb 06, 2010 3:16 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

There is one passage that puzzled me, and I can't work out if it is lazy writing (I do think she is quite a lazy writer) or if I have missed some significance here (I had given up looking for significance, as everything that was presented as something earthshattering seemed to be something that was obvious from much earlier in the book!).

But this passage is the one I am referring to - the description of Desmond's death:

'There had been a violent quarrel during which the other man fled and which culminated in Givner first striking Ryan with a table lamp, then using an eighteen-inch-high marble statuette of a male nude to beat him to death.  Much was made in the report of this bronze figurine of Apollo.'  (p.362 in my copy)

Well, was the figurine made of marble or bronze?  The 'much was made' is clearly to do with Desmond's homosexuality, but is there a deliberate point being made in describing the statuette initially as of marble, then of bronze - are we meant to see the newspaper report as fabricating for some reason?  (And if so, what?)  Or is it just an extraordinary lapse in concentration and proofreading?  

Also, why did Gerald give Titus the manuscript of his new novel?

And why was the Game such a big thing?  It was very obvious what the 'rule' was, I am unconvinced that so few people would have got it.  It was the first thing that entered my head, and I wasn't even able to see the evidence...

Sorry, I do wish Miranda were here, as I feel I am missing something about the book as a whole, and need some positive input to counter my wholly negative response.  I just feel so disappointed, I was expecting so much more!


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TheRejectAmidHair



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PostPosted: Sat Feb 06, 2010 5:18 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The passage you quote is a shockingly bad piece of writing. Quite apart from the confusion over whether the statuette was marble or bronze, we get this:

Quote:
'There had been a violent quarrel during which the other man fled and which culminated in ..."


The "which" presumably refers to the quarrel. But the quarrel had been referred to at the start of the sentence in the past perfect tense:

"There had been a violent quarrel..." (my italics)

So when it is referred to again later in the sentence, it should also be referred to again in the past perfect tense for consistency. But it isn't - it's in the past tense:

Quote:
"... and which culminated in ..."


This would have been correct (the other man fleeing should also be in the past perfect tense, of course):

Quote:
'There had been a violent quarrel during which the other man had fled, and which had culminated in ..."


(I also added a comma after the word "fled", as this helps clarify the sentence somewhat. Even so, the placing of the word "which" twice in such close proximity makes for poor sentence structure.)

I can't believe a author of Ruth Rendell's reputation would let this pass. It wasn't just a typo on your part, was it?




Last edited by TheRejectAmidHair on Sat Feb 06, 2010 5:30 pm; edited 2 times in total
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Evie
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PostPosted: Sat Feb 06, 2010 5:26 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

No, I'm afraid it's not a typo on my part.  I found the writing surprisingly clunky throughout - and very dull, no style at all.  I really was expecting something much more impressive, in terms of the prose if not the plot.  I will find more examples, because it's easy to say something like that and not explain it properly - but that's what I mean about lazy writing, it did seem poor to me.


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TheRejectAmidHair



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PostPosted: Sat Feb 06, 2010 5:27 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Evie wrote:
No, I'm afraid it's not a typo on my part.


Dear me!


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Sat Feb 06, 2010 6:03 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

E/V, I'm glad you used the word 'lazy', as it occurred to me on more than one occasion while I was reading the book. I wouldn't normally have a problem with her prose, which though clunky is generally competent, as this kind of book, by which I mean a mystery driven primarily by plot, is one I'd be inclined to race through without paying too much attention to sentence construction. In a book that's about an acclaimed writer of high-quality fiction, though, inevitably Vine's own writing comes under scrutiny.

Here's a sentence I had problems with:

Quote:
A feeling came upon her that some terrible thing was approaching the door, some monster that trailed and lumbered.

Trailed what? I thought. If the monster itself was trailing something of its own, an arm, for instance, then why not mention it? If it was trailing behind something else, what was it trailing behind? Maybe I'm making too much of it, but it seems a woolly and unclear sentence, and I was surprised by the lack of care. This is before we get to plain mistakes like "ISBN number", which I would never expect to see from a writer of Vine's reputation.

As I suggested in my first post, though, this wasn't a big deal to me. I was quite happy to read the book because I felt involved and intrigued, even if the mystery aspect wasn't the most baffling and some of the characters and plot developments were unlikely. In spite of the criticisms I have made I think she is a good plotter, though the book could have done with some editing. I wasn't sure there was enough material to sustain it over 450 pages.

When I wrote I sympathised with Gerald, I should have clarified that I don't sanction at all his treatment of his wife, which is inexcusable throughout. If the extract from one of his books that opens the novel is anything to go by, he approaches the marriage not in the way some latently homosexual men do, under the impression that marriage will somehow 'cure' them, but with the sole objective of having a family by this woman despite not loving her. I do sympathise enormously however with the situation of living in a society where homosexuality is taboo, unable to be true to yourself. Growing up in another time, Gerald Candless might not have been such a monster.

The scenes in the Turkish bath reminded me of Alan Hollinghurst in some ways (though I think he is a very fine writer). One doesn't expect to read such things very much outside what might be thought of as gay genre fiction, and I thought she did a smart job of treading the line that, if crossed, might have alienated some of her readers. I imagine most people don't pick up a Barbara Vine in the hope of some man-on-man action. From my own perspective, I think it might have helped Smile


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Evie
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PostPosted: Sat Feb 06, 2010 6:23 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yes, I was a bit harsh on Gerald too - I don't at all see him as a monster, and Ursula was extremely passive (one reason I failed to sympathise with her as much as I felt I ought to).  I thought the scenes in the Turkish bath were among the best in the book, also the scenes on the beach in Devon, with the mists rolling in.

And I too can certainly overlook shortcomings in the writing in the type of book that is clearly plot-driven or if I am engrossed in the story (Phil Rickman springs to mind - not a good writer technically, but I get swept up in his novels) - I was just expecting more from someone of her reputation, she is so often cited as an impressive writer, but this seemed so sloppy to me.

Perhaps it was that it was too long, and would have worked better with 100 pages edited out.  There was certainly nothing at the end to justify the longueurs of the rest of the novel - the Sunday Times reviewer on my copy said that the solution was 'as jolting as a flash of lightning'.  I just keep thinking I must have missed something, because there was no jolt for me.


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Evie
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PostPosted: Sat Feb 06, 2010 8:50 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

(I should say - there will be a slight gap before discussion of the Muriel Spark - I haven't finished it yet!)



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