Vine, Barbara - 'The Birthday Present'
THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT has probably been the book I was most looking forward to in 2008, especially considering how good Rendell's last effort under the Vine name – THE MINOTAUR – was. Sadly, this doesn't get within a long creeping tendril's distance of the quality.
It's early 1990. The Thatcher government is nearing its last days, and there's a love affair going on. Ivor Tesham, a thirty-year-old political rising star is secretly bedding beautiful London housewife Hebe Furnal. For her birthday Ivor decides to give her a special present that certain more open couples have begun to engage in: a practice known as 'adventure sex'. Hebe is to be abducted, consenting but unknowing of when, at an unknown venue and time, bound and gagged, then delivered to her lover at a specified location… The decision to "treat" Hebe to this fashionable new thrill is one that will lead to tragedy touching the lives of several people, least of all Tesham's.
THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT is an odd beast among the Vine canon, almost entirely unlike any of her other, which normally feature hidden, secret crimes of the past, dark, cloudy tragedies recollected in the present or some further point, that gradually become unfolded to reveal something horrific. This, however, is more a political satire-cum-thriller. It is, admittedly, absolutely full of many of the things one would expect of a Vine novel: a brilliant conveyance of the psychology of its many characters, and a demonstration of a remarkable insight into the time-period in which it is set. The characters, with their weaknesses and leavening normalities, are of course brilliantly written. As is the portrait of a primarily self-obsessed early-nineties era. Vine plays this aspect of the social landscape up, and that is the part which contains the majority of the subtle satire. The novel is brought to us in two parts, the first-person narration of Ivor's brother-in-law, and the first-person diary of Hebe's "best friend" Jane, whom Hebe largely used as an alibi to keep her affair under wraps. Jane is a particularly Vine-esque piece: a lonely, bitter 30-ish spinster whom one would feel utter sympathy for were it not for the fact that her loneliness has made her unspeakably selfish, self-obsessed, and vaguely deluded. Her characters, as ever, are perfect examples of how to place a reader's opinions in conflict. At times I felt infinite sorrow and pity for Jane, at times one wanted to laugh at her and, cruelly, almost believed she deserved herself. Ivor's self-obsession is a slightly different story: his ability to think about anyone but himself or his political career induces nothing but coldness, apart from the occasional wistful brace of pity at his naivety. Ultimately, few readers will care that his political career is bound to come tumbling down, which might be part of the problem. It is bound to happen, but no one cares, which renders the crucial question (and with Vine there is always one crucial question, one that is supposed to taunt the reader throughout, this time that of how the man's career tumbles) almost irrelevant.
Vine also makes good use of questions of fate and chance to inject levels and power and intrigue into the novel, but ultimately any good work is dampened by the ending (much like the latest P D James novel, THE PRIVATE PATIENT), which is disappointing for a reason unheard of in Vine: simply, there is no surprise. Not even an effort at one. What has been destined to happen all along, turns out to happen, and that's pretty much it. There's a little sub-plot – that of Jane – to be dealt with, and dealt with it is, but not in a way that has any great shocks or surprises. The fact that everything turned out to be so predictable disappointed me greatly. It's possible that Vine was aiming at something different with this novel, making it more of a criminal satire than a novel of secrets and surprises, but the aspects of satire are not enough to give the novel enough oomph. Vine's strengths are the unveiling of hidden, shocking secrets, the revealing of twisted psychologies, and they really needed to be present here as well. It's a great shame, as I thought the premise was absolutely brilliant: a woman captured for the purposes of 'adventure sex'. It's a great plot-point to start with, but sadly Vine takes her focus elsewhere, which also added to my disappointment.
For Vine fans, THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT may be a disappointment, but it is still certainly worth a read for its social insights and psychological portraits. It's a good novel, and I enjoyed reading it, but I was just very disappointed that it was less than it could be. Non-Vine fans, or readers who prefer satires or political novels, may well – unclouded by expectation – find much indeed to like here. So, for almost any reader it is certainly one to have a crack at. It is, after all, brilliantly written. And that is a worthwhile pleasure for anyone.
Fiona Walker, England