The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

 

“There is no time in our lives when we are so conspicuously without mercy as in adolescence.”

I don’t think I would ever picked up this ‘obscure’ and forgotten novel if it hadn’t been for the ‘crime fiction’ module I took during my second year of uni. Thanks to that module, which was in every other respect a huge waste of time (lecturer on Tom Ripley: “he does bad things because he wants more stuff”…truly illuminating), I was able to ‘discover’ Barbara Vine’s work.
Since then I’ve read a few other novels by Vine (which happens to Ruth Rendell’s nom de plume) and while I can safely say that she is an excellent writer, The House of Stairs remains my favourite of hers. Perhaps it is because of its sapphic undertones, or maybe I’m just a sucker for unrequited love stories.

“It felt like a passion, it felt like being in love, it was being in love, it was the kind of thing you delude yourself that, if all goes well, will last a lifetime. Things, of course, didn’t go well. When do they?”

The House of Stairs tells a dizzying tale of tale of psychological suspense. Like other novels by Vine it employ two timelines and explores the haunting effects of the past on the present. ‘The present’ features characters whose lives have been altered by an often unspecified accident and or crime. The second timeline, narrated from the retrospective, focuses on their past, and in particular on the events leading to that ‘one big event’. Vine does not limit herself to recounting past occurrences, instead she allows her characters to re-examine their own actions, as well as attempting to understand the motivations behind those of others. The past and present flow into each other, and throughout her narratives Vine traces both a crime’s roots and its subsequent ramifications.
Set in London The House of Stairs London opens in 1980s when Elizabeth—protagonist and narrator—glimpses Bell, a woman who has been recently released from prison. Seeing Bell is the catalyst that makes Elizabeth recount her story (transporting us to the late 60s and early 70s) but even if she knows the identity of Bell’s victim she does not share the details of this fateful event with the readers, preferring instead to play her cards close to her chest. This dual storyline creates an apparent juxtaposition of past and present. We can hazard guesses through brief glimpses of her present, her ambiguous remarks, such as ‘Bell’s motive for asking those questions was outside the bounds of my imagings’ and ‘[A]s they wished me to do, I was seeing everything inside-out’, and through her carefully paced recounting of those events.
By re-living that particular time of her life, Elizabeth—alongside the reader—acquires a better understanding of the circumstances that lead Bell to commit murder. Her narration is a far from passive relay of what happened for Elizabeth in the present seems actively involved in this scrutiny of past events.

“It is interesting how such reputations are built. They come about through confusing the two kinds of truth telling: the declaration of opinion and principle and the recounting of history.”

One of Vine’s motifs is in fact to include a house which is the locus of her story, functioning as a Gothic element within her storylines. In this novel the house (nicknamed—you guessed it—’the house of stairs’) is purchased by Cosette—a relation of Elizabeth’s—soon after the death of her husband, and becomes home to a group of bohemians, hippies, and outsiders of sorts. The house become an experimental ground: it is an escape from traditional social norms, a possibility for Cosette to make her own makeshift family.
The house creates an almost disquieting atmosphere: those who live there are exploiting Cosette, and tensions gradually emerge between its tenants. The house can be a place of secrecy—doors shut, people do not leave their rooms, stairs creak—and of jealousy, for Elizabeth comes to view the other guests as depriving her of Cosette’s affection.


Elizabeth, plagued by the possibility of having inherited a family disease, finds comfort in Bell, a beautiful and alluring woman. Elizabeth comes to idolize Bell (comparisons to the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi abound), and finds herself increasingly obsessed by her. Bell’s arrival into the house, however, will have violent consequences.
As Elizabeth is examining this time in her life, she, once again, finds herself falling under Bell’s spell.

“I found her exciting in a disturbing way, a soul-shacking way, without knowing in the least what I wanted of her.”

Like many other Vine novels The House of Stairs is a deeply intertextual work. Henry James, in particular, plays a significant role in Elizabeth’s narration.
Guilt, culpability, love, obsession, desire, greed, past tragedies, and family legacies are recurring themes in Elizabeth’s story. Vine, however, doesn’t offer an easy answer as she problematises notions of normalcy and evil.
There are many reasons why I love this novel so much: Vine’s elegantly discerning prose, her examination of class and gender roles in the 1960s-70s, the way she renders Elizabeth’s yearning for Bell…while I can see that some readers my age may find this novel to be a bit outdated, I would definitely recommend it to those who enjoy reading authors such as Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Magda Szabó.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy by Barbara Vine

“I want to be in love. I want to be possessed and obsessed by it, I want the sky to change colour and the sun to shine all the time. I want to long for the phone to ring and pace the room when it doesn’t. I want to be breathless at the sound of her voice and tongue-tied when I first see her.”

A layered and complex character driven novel, one that from start to finish thrums with suspense.
Guilt, lost chances, secretive relationships and desires are explored throughout this novel.

After the death of her husband, renown writer Gerald Candless, Ursula considers her loveless marriage and the freedom she has gained as a widow. Her daughters, unlike her, loved Gerald. It is hinted, from the very beginning, that Gerald marries solely to become a father: his desire, during the 60s and the 70s is made to make him unusual, different. Yet, he takes control of his daughters, pushing Ursula out of the family picture. Sarah, the eldest daughter, is charged with writing a memoir in his memory. Grief stricken, she agrees, only to then discover than her mythical father is not who he claimed to be.
A perusal of the past brings to life Ursula’s unhappy marriage as well as the lives of the families surrounding the mystery of Gerald’s true identity. Identity, love, freedom, all play a large role in the story’s narrative. The richly detailed backdrop provides a wistful portrayal of 20th century (from the 40s to the 90s) England. Characters who actively challenge themselves and one another make the narrative utterly engaging. Barbara Vine doesn’t shy away from depicting the most unnerving and uncomfortable aspects of her society: personal vices, poverty, depression, repression, and various injustices abound.
Also, Vine doesn’t provide clear cut answers or universal truths. Her story and her characters do no fit in neat little boxes. She explores the actions of different types of people without any sentimentalist moral lessons.
Vine allows us to know what is coming – that is the ‘mystery’ at the core of this novel – however she doesn’t let the details, the particulars, of that mystery known to us: she keeps us guessing, even when we are fairly certain of what exactly happened, we are only provided with fragmented glimpses of the fuller ‘picture’.
With a beautiful and richly descriptive prose, characters who are both sensual and finicky, a plot that relies on the art of writing itself (so many books are mentioned!) , well, The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy is a truly remarkable read.

My rating: 5 stars

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