9.12.09

Barbara Vine's The Minotaur


Looking for a great book to read on a dark winter night? What about one set in a gloomy, decaying house called Lydstep Old Hall? In Barbara Vine’s The Minotaur, Kerstin Kvist is hired to nurse a man with an unknown mental disability, a job that involves moving into Lydstep Old Hall. The secluded English countryside and the decaying house, parts of which date back to Tudor times, have mysterious Gothic overtones. Kerstin admits, “I thought of how alone we were out here in the midst of nowhere, in the deep darkness, surrounded by fields” (311). She soon discovers that she has moved in with a strange family who is “good at keeping things hidden” (12).

Ruth Rendell writes here as Barbara Vine, signalling to readers the use of a different voice. In a Globe and Mail review of the novel, Rosemary Aubert claims, “Barbara Vine always feels like Barbara Vine, and that feeling is creepy, profound, compelling and, finally, illuminating” (2005). The Vine books step outside the usual conventions of the mystery novel. There is no detective in the novel; the narrator, Kerstein Kvist, must unravel the threads of the mystery. If the standard mystery novel begins with a crime and works backwards in time to solve it, The Minotaur ends with a crime, gradually building up to it.

Vine is a master of psychological suspense. The sense of menace, tyranny, imminent danger – what The Observer’s Tom Williams identifies as “ominous doom” – infuses the entire novel. The threatening, claustrophobic atmosphere and inexorable build-up of pressure keep the reader on edge, waiting for the worst to happen.

The Minotaur is filled with a strange and unforgettable cast of characters. “Exaggerated but entirely credible characters are a Vine specialty,” writes Penelope Lively in her Times review of the novel. John, who is identified as the monster of the family by his mother and siblings, is unable to interact normally with others. Yet ironically it is the so-called “normal” family members who are truly monstrous in their cold-hearted manipulation of and indifference towards others. Even the deceased father enacts revenge on his family by means of his will.

John’s sanctuary, his place of refuge from the tyranny surrounding him, is Lydstep Old Hall’s labyrinthine library. He is the “minotaur” of the title, the monstrous creature of classical mythology who becomes trapped in a maze. John’s mind and condition are reflected in the winding, convoluted, and entrapping corridors of the labyrinth. Williams points out that the reader is not presented with “a madwoman in an attic but a madman in a maze.” Certainly echoes of Jane Eyre enrich the novel.

The long central section of this three-part novel (Now – Then – Now) is narrated as an extended flashback that occurred 35 years ago. The narrator has the advantage of hindsight, dropping hints of the future such as, “Neither of us could have foreseen what was to come when the diary became an important piece of evidence and I would have to speak and tell everything I knew” (167). Suspense mounts as we try to guess where the narrative is heading.

Although the novel is filled with foreboding and mystery, it not a fast-paced, plot-driven story. Readers who love a gradual build-up of suspense, a leisurely pace, and a psychological focus, will love The Minotaur.

Aubert, Rosemary. “In and Out of the Labyrinth.” The Globe and Mail. August 20, 2005.

Vine, Barbara. The Minotaur. Toronto, ON: Penguin, 2005.