Friday, 12 March 2010

Review: Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell

I stumbled upon Ruth Rendell in my teens and, with the exception of Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series, I have persistently returned to her novels. To me, Rendell is a genius! Judging by the synopses on the covers of her books, most of her plots seem a trifle bland, not to say boring. However, once you give it a go, you quickly get sucked in.

Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell
Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell

All her psychological novels have got one decisive feature: She creates protagonists that on the surface have got absolutely nothing in common with each other. As her stories unravel,  Rendell creates a web of fateful connections between her protagonists, and, in the end, all are entangled in a web of (often) unintended and horrific consequences. Lake of Darkness serves as a good example.

Following guidance from his erstwhile university friend Tim Sage, Martin, a young accountant from a well-to-do family, wins a fortune in the football pools. Due to philanthropic impulses, Martin decides to put his wealth to good use and draws up a list of deserving people, who he considers to be in need of financial help. Amongst the beneficiaries is Lena, the family’s former, mentally–ill cleaner, who lives together with her son, Finn, in a shabby London bed-sit. 

Finn is a sociopath, who not only works as a handyman, but also as a contract killer. When Martin contacts Finn with the good news, Finn completely misunderstands Martin’s philanthropic motive and assumes that Martin’s “gift” is intended to pay for his services as an assassin. Meanwhile, all the reader can do is follow the tragedy unfold as the two worlds collide.

Just like Martin, the educated and professionally successful bachelor, who has only recently moved out from a somewhat (sterile) parental home in order to move into an up-market (sterile) flat, Finn lives in an isolated world, defined by a belief in the supernatural, his own invincibility and his mentally deranged mother. Whilst Finn is a loner by choice, all of Martin’s social relationships are of a more or less functional nature. By the same token, it is exactly this very isolation that is the trigger behind Martin’s irrational choices. Above all, this is exemplified by his almost childish devotion to his girlfriend, Francesca. Both characters simply occupy different social spaces, which in the end collide. 

The motif of social isolation and its consequences permeates many Rendell novels and Lake of Darkness is no exception. In fact, it is to a large extent due to this underlying isolation that Rendell’s characters assume deeply tragic qualities.

Apart from her talent as a writer of psychological novels, Rendell’s stories should be viewed as historical documents, sketching the development of London and the home counties during the 1970s. Lake of Darkness, for instance, is set against the background of acute housing shortages and the onset of the property boom in the capital during the late 1970s and 1980s.

Whilst I have to admit that the plot of the story is at times slightly unbelievable, Lake of Darkness is a gripping book, deeply tragic, full of wonderful prose and poignant dialogue, with sometimes even comic attributes.
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