Ismay Sealand lives with her sister, Heather, in a ground floor flat in North London. Upstairs their aunt Pamela spends most of her days looking after Ismay and Heather's schizophrenic mother, Beatrix, who continues to wonder the neighborhood shouting out violent passages from the Book of Revelations after
having gone off the deep-end twelve years ago.
What at first appears
to be a rather civilized family arrangement is, in fact, a pact based on an incident involving Beatrix's second husband, Guy, who allegedly drowned in the upstairs bathroom. Heather supposedly murdered Guy after she witnessed him touching and kissing Ismay in inappropriate ways. Doing little to alleviate Guy's advances, perhaps because she was secretly attracted to him, Ismay has spent the past twelve years worrying over what exactly Heather
had done, if anything.
These four women have continued to coexist in a convenient and expedient relationship, in particular Ismay and Heather as they are sisters and very close. Living together, they have never discussed the changes to the house that were brought upon by the tragedy, still less what happened on that hot and sweaty August day when
Ismay was fifteen and Heather two years younger.
The verdict was accidental death, the bruises on Guy's ankles dismissed as due to some other cause. But seeing how it looked - Heather's wet dress and shoes, her dislike of Guy, and also Beatrix's lie that gave her an alibi and her need to protect her youngest daughter from police questioning
- have thrown Ismay into a ten-year anguish. If she really did find out about Heather, what could she do with the truth?
This delicate balance is upset when Ismay falls in love with Andrew Campbell-Sedge, a stuffy, arrogant, self-involved lawyer who takes an instant dislike to Heather and her latest beau, Edmund Litton, a diffident hospice nurse who still lives with his mother, Irine, a horribly autocratic hypochondriac. Ismay is swept away by the throes of passion, but Andrew steadfastly refuses to live in the flat while Heather is there. He views Heather is a thorn in Ismay's side, "a mistress of the persistent silence and "a gorgon": "It would matter less of she didn't live with you."
Meanwhile, Marion, a local confidence trickster, cheats and lies and thieves her way in and out of elderly people's lives, especially those with money such as the kindly octogenarian Avice, who adores her two pet rabbits and is seeking a "nice" girl like Marion to look after them. In reality, Marion is a cold-blooded opportunist and ruthless blackmailer who will stop at nothing to convert Avice's will
to make jer the only beneficiary of the naïve woman's vast wealth.
Surprisingly, it is Irine who is particularly attentive to Marion, mainly because she thinks the girl will make a perfect wife for her beloved Edmund. Possessed of a weak constitution, with migraines that plague her for days on end and perpetually tired with acid indigestion, she sees Edmund's commitment with the "gauche" Heather as brittle and delicate. She's also appalled at her son's intentions to take out
a mortgage on a flat on his salary when he would be far happier living with her,
having her four-bedroom house at his disposal.
Presented with a family structure that they cannot seem to undo, Heather and Ismay become ever more involved with the Littons and with Marion, who - with the help of Fowler, her transient dumpster-scavenging brother – manages to weave together a web of extortion. Murder, blackmail and deceit quickly ensue, especially when the shady past of Guy's death inevitably reaches its sticky fingers into the complicated present.
The multi-layered plot hinges on a brown bottle of morphine sulfate, a tape of Ismay's
which falls into the wrong hands, and Ismay's recurring dreams of Guy dead under the water and the other dreams peopled by her mother, Pamela and Heather
- and once by two older policemen, one of whom ends up playing an integral part in the Sealand family's secret.
Expounding on her earlier themes of misguided obsession and the kinds of mistrusts that can lie at the heart of the human psyche, author Ruth Rendell once again proves that difficult times draw her characters into unknown terrain. Up until now, everyone has modeled their lives on the assumption that Heather essentially murdered Guy
- Beatrix in her madness, Ismay watching over Heather, and everyone else over the years so totally convinced that Heather
actually did away with her stepfather.
Set against a backdrop of the author's beloved Finchley Road and Chudleigh Hill area of London, The Water's Lovely proves that you can never really hide from the events of the past, even when they seem to be long buried. These characters are often stunned by the reactions of others and blindsided by mistrust, intolerance, and deceitfulness. It is a measure of Rendell's skill that she can continue to bring out the very worst in them with such absurdity and also with such heartbreak.