The Child's Child
Barbara Vine
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The Child's Child
Barbara Vine
320 pages
December 2012
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Child's Child.

Grace, the first-person narrator in The Child's Child, is our mirror to the tragedy of Maud Goodwin, who becomes pregnant and is promptly exiled from her family. Hardly the same age and notably of dissimilar temperament, Grace and Maud are stifled by their roles and aghast at the inhibitions placed upon them--Maud from the societal mores of her time, and Grace from the cold judgment of novelist James Derain, her brother Andrew’s handsome lover.

When Grace and Andrew are gifted their deceased grandmother’s estate, ivory-walled Dinmont House, Grace is isolated from the world but still able to continue her PhD work on unwed mothers in Victorian fiction. As Grace ponders how oppressive it was for nineteenth-century writers who weren’t allowed to write about sex, she finds herself on the offensive when Andrew invites moody James to stay. A fierce defender of gay rights, James is of the opinion that Grace’s talk of the trials of unwed mothers pales in comparison to the struggles of gay men, who not so long ago were ostracized, attacked, and even killed.

While continuing to fend off James’ belligerent manner, Grace reads an unpublished novel called The Child’s Child, a mysterious story written in 1951 that begins in 1929 and ends just after World War II. A rare literary gem centering on the injustices of gay people and the stiff moral values of a bygone time, the novel plunges both us and Grace into the life of Maud Goodwin and her older brother, John.

In a story about the way memory and perspective erode the truth, we read of John’s tempestuous affair with working-class scoundrel Bertie Webber at a time of deep-seated morality when no one could comprehend “the sin of homosexualism.” As the men furtively have make love in John‘s ramshackle London flat, John clamps his hand over Bertie’s mouth, well aware that what they are doing is considered a capital crime. If they are caught, his life and Bertie’s will be over.

Believing that a teaching job in Devon will help heal his “damaged character,” John anxiously tries to relieve himself of Bertie’s temptations. Guilty and ashamed, with his family pressuring him to get married, John has little time for younger sister Maud, who at fifteen has only a vague idea of what relations with a man consist of. When Maude has sex with a local boy and becomes pregnant, the notion is as appalling as it is outrageous to Maude’s Methodist parents, who find it impossible to contemplate having a child “out of wedlock.”

Ruth Rendell (writing as Barbara Vine) strafes her novel with repressed tension, unfolding notions about the changing nature of families and about the emergence of gay life from the silent, glass closet into a more enlightened age. John hatches a mutually beneficial plan that will provide him and his sister a “shield of respectability” and perhaps a reprieve from his "sinful love" that leads to policemen and courts, to prison and to “a whole spectrum of ugliness and shame." Maude, ostracized for her condition, vows to stick to her resolve never to speak of her father again. As Maude grows older, we watch her transform into a narrow, censorious woman quick to pass judgment on those who had punished her for her transgression.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2012

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