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The Minotaur by Barbara Vine
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The Minotaur (2005)

by Barbara Vine

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Kerstin (pronounced ‘Shashtin’) Kvist is a Swedish nurse hired to care for schizophrenic John Cosway in an English country house. Soon after her arrival it becomes clear there is little for her to do other than accompany the silent Cosway on his walks and ensure he gets his medication. Living in the house are Cosway’s mother and his four adult sisters and, although it is the early 1960’s, the household is reminiscent of the Bennett’s in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the way it is run and the obsession with getting at least one of the women ‘married off’.

Vine/Rendell is a great story teller and here she has weaved a story that, despite not being full of murders or chase scenes, did manage to capture my attention. Told in the first person narrative by Kerstin the tale is an intricate observation of a dysfunctional family and the few outsiders they deal with and is, in its quiet way, absorbing. The characters, though not terribly unique, are interesting enough and I would happily have immersed myself in the goings on at Lydstep Hall with a deal of relish if it weren’t for the fact this is a very poorly written book.

There are some horrendously annoying things here, made all the more difficult to swallow because a writer of Vine’s undoubted talent doesn’t, or didn’t used to, have to resort to them. Firstly there are the constant, unnecessary reminders within the text that the book is reminiscent of Jane Austen’s England. The story, indeed the writing itself, literally scream Austen-esque. Read the introduction of Mr Dunsford at the start of Chapter 9 and even if your only exposure to Jane Austen has been to see the movie Clueless you’ll get the reference and won’t need to be endlessly reminded with such clumsy methods as the narrator likening herself to Elizabeth Bennett being interrogated by Lady Catherine de Burgh.

Secondly, and even more annoying, are the vague references about big events still to happen. The narrator’s tale is told in the present day reminiscing about the events of her time spent in the Cosway household. It’s not a spoiler to suggest that the most dramatic event of the book takes place towards the end but until that point there are so many “if only I’d known then what was to come” lines that I would cheerfully have thrown the book at a wall if only it wasn’t so heavy. The written equivalent of a movie-maker’s Da Da Dunnnn has always been a bugbear of mine and what it did to this book was remove the last hint or suggestion of suspense.

Without that it was a pretty humdrum story about some people who were insular, isolated and a little odd but not nearly intriguing enough to carry an entire book of awkward prose. ( )
  bsquaredinoz | Mar 31, 2013 |
Fab. I forget how much I like Rendell when she's writing as Vine. This is deceptively simple; nothing much seems to be happening for ages and ages, but it hooks you in and you can't put it down. Kerstin is apparently pronounced something like "Shashtin" in Swedish, something I didn't know. It's the narrators name here. She's engaged as a nurse to the grown up, apparently schizophrenic, son of a rather odd family in the late 1960s. Rather odd family, rather good book. ( )
  nocto | Dec 13, 2010 |
First let me say that I love the difference in writing style when Ruth Rendell writes as Barbara Vine. The gothic tone of this book lets you know that something bad took place and it is slowly revealed page by page, but in a deliberate manner.

When I reached the end of this book, I was a little frustrated because there was no clear "whodunit" conclusion. Then I realized what a stroke of genius it is to leave the conclusion open ended and let the reader imagine it instead of tying everything up in a neat little package.

Kerstin Kvist takes a position at the home of Mrs. Julia Cosway to care for her son John who is described as schizophrenic. Also living in the family home are John's sisters Ida, Winifred, Ella, and Zorah all dysfunctional in their own right, but none of them are as bad as their mother who appears to show no maternal feeling whatsoever toward her now middle aged children.

Their mother is intent on keeping her son John heavily medicated so that she doesn't have to be bothered with him. Unfortunately, she keeps him around only because her late husband left the estate and the majority of his income in trust for his son while his mother receives a small annuity.

Kerstin in due time realizes that John is autistic, not schizophrenic and plans to leave the house as soon as she is able and perhaps get John the help that he needs instead of watching him become more and more lifeless before her eyes. Just as she is planning on what her next move will be, a shocking event takes place that will change everyone's lives forever. ( )
  jonesli | Feb 14, 2010 |
Read for 4MA discussion. A fascinating portrait of a very dysfunctional family as viewed from the perspective of a down-to-earth Swedish nurse brought in to care for the 'mad' brother who, it turns out, is autistic. Very scathing portrait of small-minded middle class values in the south of England in the mid 20th-century.
  bfister | Mar 27, 2009 |
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One of the women buying amber was so much like Mrs Cosway that it gave me a shock to see her.
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"Of course, being Swedish, you won't be shocked."

I don't much like being lumped together with Danes, Norwegians and Finns as if we were all a single tribe, looking and feeling the same, holding to the same principles or lack of them, spending our time reading Hans Andersen and going to plays by Ibsen, all gloomy and suicidal alcoholics and all of us leading sexual lives like characters in "I Am Curious -- Yellow", a daring film of the time.
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Book description
Kerstin Kvist enters crumbling Lydstep Old Hall to live with the Cosways and to act as nurse to John: a grown man fed drugs by his family to control his lunatic episodes. But John’s strangeness is grotesquely mirrored in that of his four sisters who roam the dark, mazy Essex country house under the strict gaze of eighty-year-old Mrs Cosway. Despite being treated as an outsider, Kerstin is nevertheless determined to help John. But she soon discovers that there are others in the family who are equally as determined that John remain isolated, for sinister reasons of their own.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307278328, Paperback)

From the author Time magazine calls “the best mystery writer in the English-speaking world,” comes an elegant and gripping new novel that blurs the line between psychological suspense and Gothic horror. Kerstin Krist arrives at the vine-covered Lydstep Old Hall in rural Essex to care for John Cosway, a former mathematical genius, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and kept under heavy sedation. John is the sole heir of the immense Cosway estate. As he takes his daily walks or sits quivering in a labyrinthine library, the rest of the family plots their own ways of coming into the fortune. It is classic Barbara Vine–an absolutely enthralling tale that keeps turning and twisting until the very last page.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:36:15 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Barbara Vine's 12th novel is a tale featuring sex, lies and secrets within an odd, if perfectly respectable, family.

» see all 5 descriptions

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