Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Stroll with Absurdity, Obsession, & Madness for Companions


Anyone who’s ever been in the market for a house--and almost certainly balked at the exorbitant asking prices--has doubtless been treated to the same tired bit of “wisdom” from his or her desperately-earnest realtor: “Well, yes... but what you’re really paying for is the neighborhood!” (as if that somehow makes x-ridiculous-amount more feasible, more doable).

In reality, what the homeowner or renter usually finds is something rather different--that there’s no such thing as a problem-free property, regardless of the neighborhood. (Whether it’s an HVAC or plumbing issue, an appliance on the blink, a leaky roof, a flooded basement, termites or other pesky bugs, obnoxious neighbors, or whatever, there’s always something going wrong or otherwise making life in one’s domicile less-than-peachy-keen.)

That being the case, it may not seem that following a cross-segment of ordinary people, going about their everyday lives, could be so fascinating... yet in crime fiction and suspense writer Ruth Rendell’s capable hands it is, in Portobello.

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Although shoppers and tourists alike have long been drawn to the quaint little shops and outdoor market stalls snaking along the portion of Portobello Road which runs through London’s Notting Hill, the locals tend to see it somewhat differently. To them, it’s nothing special, simply the place down the road where they’ve always gone to buy their sundries. Instead (and generally true no matter where one lives, when it comes down to it), it is the wide variety of people within the neighborhood, and the lives they lead, which make the area so intriguing... particularly when a series of innocuous events can (and do) lead to some surprising twists and turns.

En route to his chichi art gallery one morning, prim-and-proper Eugene Wren spies an envelope in the street and picks it up, planning to toss in the nearest bin. What he assumes is just another piece of litter, though, turns out to be holding a thick wad of bills, £115 in total. Not being the sort of chap to consider even for a moment keeping the money for himself (being plenty wealthy already as well as an honest chap, by nature), nor particularly wanting to trouble the police with the matter, Eugene devises what he’s convinced is a clever scheme to locate the money’s no-doubt frantic owner. He prints out a set of fliers, stating that an unnamed but substantial sum of cash has been found, lists his contact number, then proceeds to post the fliers all over the neighborhood. His great plan? To give the money only to the person able to correctly identify the exact amount missing. (His girlfriend, Dr. Ella Cotswold--who longs for nothing so much as a proposal from the fastidious and thoughtful gallery owner--fails to dissuade him from carrying out the plan which she feels is, at best, a questionable one.)

Over the course of the next few weeks, several people from the vicinity--some connected in a fashion to the money and others not--find their ways in and out of Eugene and Ella’s lives (and occasionally, their homes and places of business)... with varying consequences. Among them are young Lance Platt, on the dole (primarily by choice) his whole life, an aimless lad who wanders through Eugene’s posh neighborhood looking for houses easy to break into (a feat in itself, given his bungling proficiency as a thief); the widower Uncle “Gib” Gibson, a former burglar (now reformed from his life of crime and turned instead to bible-thumping), who grudgingly allows his ne’er-do-well nephew Lance to stay with him in his old Victorian home--a place which Gib is convinced is quite an investment (utterly blind to its wretched decrepitude compared to the renovated, now-posh homes all around him)--just a few streets over; the beautiful Gemma, Lance’s ex-girlfriend, who has since moved on to a new fellow (though she still harbors a few tender feelings for Lance), and whose flat lies somewhere in between the older men’s homes; and the strange Joel Roseman, a young man who rarely goes out, preferring to swan around the large old house--formerly owned by a fusty old lady (and still decorated according to her tastes)--which his estranged father rents for him, in near-total darkness, while trying to block memories of past tragedy from his mind.

As their paths (as well as those of a few tertiary players) intersect at various points, it becomes clear that it is really the characters’ inner thoughts and, particularly, inner demons, which are so compelling. Whether it’s one person’s desperate desire for belonging, another’s shameful (and surprising) addiction, the emergence of a split personality, an unhealthy jealousy rearing its ugly head, or someone’s deviously-scheming nature, the inner battles fought and won (or lost) hold the keys to everything that happens in Portobello.

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Portobello is a complex yet basically quiet tale; major events take place against a mostly-calm (though frequently-colorful) backdrop. There is little mystery involved, and what suspense there is builds slowly. As much of the “action” takes place internally as externally; this is a story in which the payoff is found in observing the small, incremental changes within the characters and how their lives unfold, rather than in a big, shocking finale.

This is quintessential Rendell, with her usual flair for portraying that which is visible on the surface as well as laying bare the secrets which lie beneath. Wonderfully subtle and thoroughly engrossing, Portobello is psychological suspense at its elegant prime.  

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  3.75 of 5 fascinating mousies

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