The Birthday Present is the 13th novel Ruth Rendell has published under the pen-name of Barbara Vine (her own middle name and her grandmother’s maiden name), beginning with A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986). ‘The Vine novels differ from the Rendell ones as they feature deeper psychological characterization and a more sustained social critique’. (Luca Prono, 2009).
The Birthday Present tells the story of Ivor Tesham MP, a promising and ambitious Tory politician. A womanizer, his sexual preferences can be better described as ‘peculiar’. His sexual fantasies are shared by his ‘mistress’ Hebe Furnal, a married woman. As a birthday present he plans a fashionable new practice known as ‘adventure sex’. Tesham hires two men to carry out a mock kidnapping of his girlfriend with her consent. But things go terribly wrong. The car carrying Hebe handcuffed, gagged and blindfolded for a hot date collides with a lorry with fatal consequences. One man and Hebe Furnal killed and the driver is left in a coma. At this point the rest of the novel explores the aftermath of these events. The story is told from two perspectives. Rob Delgado, Tesham’s brother-in-law narrates the events that intertwine with pages of Jane Atherton’s diary, a friend of Hebe, the ‘alibi lady’. Hebe’s husband does not have a clue about her double life. The action takes place around 1990 and 1994, between the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
Although brilliantly written I found the narration a bit tedious some times. It does provide though a portrait of an era with interesting references to what was going on in the world at that time together with some insights on British politics and social issues. The characters are very well defined and the story gets better at the end with a nice plot twist. Maybe I was expecting more of Rendell/Vine but overall it’s an original and compelling novel. It’s certainly worth a read.
As Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell is the author among others of A Dark-Adapted Eye, which received huge critical acclaim and won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award; A Fatal Inversion, winner of the 1987 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award; The House of Stairs, winner of the Angel Award for Fiction; and King Solomon’s Carpet, winner of the 1991 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award. Ruth Rendell is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 1991 she was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association Diamond Dagger for a lifetime’s achievement in crime writing. In 1997 she was created a life peer and took the title Baroness Rendell of Babergh.
Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine
The Birthday Present (2008)
Penguin Books, 2009
Number of Pages: 278