As soon as Kerstin Kvist arrives at remote, ivy-covered Lydstep Old Hall in Essex, she feels like a character in a gothic novel. A young nurse fresh out of school, Kerstin has been hired for a position with the Cosway family, residents of the Hall for generations. She is soon introduced to her "charge," John Cosway, a thirty-nine-year-old man whose strange behavior is vaguely explained by his mother and sisters as part of the madness that runs in the family.
Weeks go by at Lydstep with little to mark the passage of time beyond John's daily walks and the amusingly provincial happenings that engross the Cosway women, and Kerstin occupies her many free hours at the Hall reading or making entries into her diary. Meanwhile, bitter wrangling among Julia Cosway and her four grown daughters becomes increasingly evident. But this is just the most obvious of the tensions that charge the old remote estate, with its sealed rooms full of mystery. Soon Kerstin will find herself in possession of knowledge she will wish she'd never attained, secrets that will propel the occupants of Lydstep Old Hall headlong into sexual obsession, betrayal, and, finally, murder.
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British master Vine (aka Ruth Rendell) explores life among the Cosways, a country gentry clan that makes the Wuthering Heights crowd look wholesome. Kerstin Kvist, a young Swedish nurse, takes a job at Lydstep Old Hall caring for John Cosway, a mathematical prodigy now labeled by his family as schizophrenic. In addition to John, there are four obsessive sisters ruled by their scarecrow-like matriarch. Gradually, Kerstin suspects that John is being drugged so that his mother and sisters can remain in their estate under the terms of a disputed trust. Vine creates a family and village, Windrose, so vivid you're tempted to book a B and B and investigate things yourself. Some scenes involving John's behavior-his fits and his family's reactions-seem abrupt to the point of being bizarre, but Vine is describing a man hijacked from rationality, through a narrator whose first language isn't English. When murder finally happens, it's simultaneously shocking yet inevitable. Though less elegantly written than 2002's The Blood Doctor, this delivers a more palpable, and thus satisfying, crime. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 12, 2007
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Excerpt from The Minotaur by Barbara Vine
I AM A CARTOONIST.
We are thin on the ground, we women cartoonists; it's still thought of as a man's job, and there are even fewer of my sort who aren't English and never went to art school. Over the close-on thirty years that I have been contributing a couple of cartoons to each issue of a weekly news magazine, I have drawn Harold Wilson and Willy Brandt, Mao Zedong and Margaret Thatcher (hundreds of times), John Major, Neil Kinnock, David Beckham, and Tony Blair (nearly sixty times). People say I can catch a likeness with a few strokes and squiggles; they know who it's supposed to be before they read the caption or the balloon coming out of a character's mouth. But I was no child artist prodigy, I don't remember learning anything about art at school and for years all I ever drew was a Dog Growing for my small niece and nephew.
I'll tell you about the Dog Growing because you may want to make one for your own children. You take a sheet of paper; a letter-sized sheet, cut vertically in half, will do very well. Then you fold it in half again and fold the folded-over piece back on itself to make an inch-wide pleat. Flatten it our again and draw a dog across the folds. It's best to make it a dachshund or a basset hound because it should have a long stretch of body between forelegs and hindlegs. Then refold your paper into its pleat. The dog now has a short body but when the child opens the pleat the dog grows into a dachshund. Of course, when you get practiced at it, you can make a Giraffe's Neck Growing or a Turkey Growing into an Ostrich. Children love it and that was all I ever drew all through my teens and when I was at university.
I was going to be a nurse and then I was going to reach English. I never considered drawing as a career because you can't make a living out of a Dog Growing. It was in the late sixties when I came to England, fresh from the University of Lund and my English degree and with a fairly humble nursing qualification. I had a job lined up and a place to live, but my real motive in coming was to renew my love affair with Mark Douglas.
We had met at Lund, but when he graduated he had to go home and all his letters urged me to follow him. Get a job in London, get a room. Everyone in London, he wrote, lives in a bedsitter. I did the next best thing and got a job in Essex, near the main line from Liverpool Street to Norwich. The family who was employing me was called Cosway, and the house they lived in, Lydstep Old Hall. I had never in my life seen anything like that house.
It was very large yet it hardly looked like a house at all, more a great bush or huge piece of topiary work. When I first saw it in June it was entirely covered, from end to end and from foundation to the line of the roof, in intensely green Virginia creeper. I could see it was oblong and that its roof was almost flat but if there were architectural features such as balconies, railings, recessed columns, stonework, none showed through the mass of glossy green. Windows alone peeped out of this leafy wrapping. It was a rather windy day and, because the breeze set all the hundreds of thousands of leaves shivering, there was an illusion that the house itself moved, shrank, expanded, and subsided again.
"Be like living inside a tree," said the taxi man as I was paying him. "You'd think all that stuff would damage the brickwork. I wouldn't fancy it. Friends of yours, are they?"
"Not yet," I said.
Lydstep Old Hall was the first thing I ever drew. Apart from Dogs Growing, that is. I drew it that night, from memory as I was inside the house, and that is how I have drawn everything ever since.
Mark's sister-in-law Isabel Croft got me the job. She had been at school with the youngest Cosway girl.