I’ve been a fan of Ruth Rendell for years, especially when she writes under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. Her books usually involve secrets or family histories, and the stories are often told by narrators looking back on the events from the vantage point of one who is older and wiser. Set mostly in the 1960s, The Minotaur tells the story of the Cosway family, as seen through the eyes of Kerstin (pronounced Shashtin) Kvist, the Swedish woman the family hires to live at their Essex home and help look after John, who is in his 30s and believed to be schizophrenic. It doesn’t take long for Kerstin to realize that something isn’t right about this diagnosis or the medical treatment he is receiving.
Ultimately, this book was not as absorbing as most of Vine’s work. She does her usual excellent job of peppering the narrative with hints of what is really going or what is about to happen, which kept me reading, but I never felt the tension I usually feel when reading Vine. I often read her books in just a few sittings because I must read on to get to the end, when the tension she builds so beautifully is released. This book was a quick read, certainly, but I never felt that I had to keep reading. I was never really worried for the characters.
I think part of the problem had to do with Kerstin herself. Vine’s decision to make her narrator a cultural outsider makes sense because it helps to explain how she could know so much about the potential true nature of John’s likely condition but unsure about whether and how to report what she’s observing. But I think that giving Kerstin this cultural distance actually makes her too much of an outsider. She didn’t even live with the Cosways for a year, and she’s telling the story more than 30 years since seeing anyone from the family. I never really believed the Cosways mattered much to her; thus, they didn’t matter much to me.
If you’re already a Barbara Vine fan, this book is worth a read, but I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to her work. A Fatal Inversion or No Night Is Too Long would be a better place to start.