The Birthday Present
Barbara Vine
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Buy *The Birthday Present* by Barbara Vine online

The Birthday Present
Barbara Vine
323 pages
March 2010
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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The whiff of perversion taints Barbara Vine’s revisionist view of English conservative political history as rising Tory politician MP Ivor Tesham, a wealthy thirty-something, is threatened to be undone by his sexual peccadilloes. One would never think the handsome and debonair Ivor, who is outwardly at least the personification of the English gentleman, would have such a dark and subversive past.

Only Ivor’s brother-in-law, Rob Delgardo, who partly narrates this darkly mordant tale, knows the truth behind the fateful night when Ivor’s gorgeous girlfriend Hebe Furnal was killed on the way to an evening tryst with him. A pretty blonde with the looks of a model, selfish Hebe apparently had a healthy family life. This didn’t stop her from indulging in her wildest sexual appetites, her affair with Ivor characterized by a meeting of two people with exactly the same tastes and the same kind of feverish, kinky greed.

Ivor hired theatre actor Lloyd Freeman and Dermot Lynch, who had recently worked on Ivor’s car, to carry out the “birthday present.” Essentially, the plan was to pick up Hebe and bring her to his brother-in-law’s house in Hampstead. They were to simulate a kidnapping by handcuffing Hebe, roping her ankles, and tying a scarf round her mouth. Everything goes wrong when their car is hit by lorry driver and Lloyd and Hebe are instantly killed.

Dermot Lynch, the driver of the car, was paralyzed, thankfully unable to speak cogently or move freely. Gravitating between charm and uncharacteristic restlessness, increasingly uncomfortable about the possibility of his little adventure coming to light in some kind of gossip column, Ivor hopes that with Lynch incapacitated the affair will all blow over.

As Ivor confides his innermost thoughts and insecurities - and his idealized notion of Hebe - to Rob and his loyal sister, Iris, various stakeholders have a vested interest in Ivor’s story. Jane Atherton filled her role as foil to Hebe’s particular charms, providing her with alibis to her diffident husband, Gerry, and their two-year-old son, Justin. She was the secret friend who agreed to deceive Gerry by supplying him with ostensible reasons for Hebe’s absences while she was off philandering with Ivor.

As Jane tries to instill herself into Gerry’s life, she remains fascinated by the implications of Hebe‘s affair with Ivor, her curiosity exacerbated by a diary and the discovery of Hebe’s dog collar of black leather with spikes, thigh boots, black lace corset, and crotchless knickers. When Jane gets fired from her job in a library, she becomes desperate and can do little else but contemplate blackmail. Added to this complicated mix is Dermot, who unexpectedly regains consciousness and in his fuddled, confused state, mutters a hitherto unconsidered name.

With a narrative as dense and as weighty as the scandal that rocks Ivor’s life, this novel is about how a shining star can fall, caught up in a haze of lies and half-truths. Existing in a place of shadows, incomprehension and oblivion, each character is driven by some aspect or other of Ivor’s secret. Although The Birthday Present is full of dull people all marked by the same breathless greed, the ultimate pleasure in this unusual tale comes from watching Ivor as he tries to repair the broken vestiges of his life and the train of reprehensible events that he so very much wanted to keep secret.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2009

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