Ruth Rendell: The Tree of Hands (1984)

Once, when Benet was about fourteen, she and her mother had been alone in a train carriage and Mopsa had tried to stab her with a carving knife. It was some time since Benet had seen her mad mother. So when Mopsa arrived at the airport, looking drab and colourless in a dowdy grey suit, Benet tried not to hate her. But the tragic death of a child begins a chain of deception, kidnap and murder. Domestic dramas exploding into deaths and murders …threads are drawn tightly together in a lethal last pattern.

I read and reviewed A Judgment in Stone last year and have mentioned how much I liked it. It was one of my favourite reads of 2010. On one of the comment thread’s Guy Savage suggested another book by Ruth Rendell, The Tree of Hands, and that is how I discovered this novel.

I have to emphasize once more what a great writer Ruth Rendell is. This book is different from A Judgment in Stone but also very engrossing. After having read The Tree of Hands I can also see why A Kind of Intimacy was compared to Rendell’s books. The description of the streets and their inhabitants shows a lot of parallels plus the people are equally deranged.

In the Tree of Hands the stories of at least 6 people are interwoven but it is skillfully done and they are all linked together in a logical way. The novel works like those rows of domino stones that have been set up in order to see them fall one by one. The falling down of the first stone makes the others follow. One action in the novel triggers another action and they are all equally fatal and catastrophic.

I was a bit wary at the beginning as Mopsa, Benet’s mother, is said to have a mental illness. Using mental illness as an explanation for a crime is often insufferable to me. But fortunately Mopsa is just the first domino stone. Being totally irresponsible she steals a child without ever thinking of the consequences but then she leaves and lets all the other people deal with the aftermath of his kidnapping.

The book really has a chain reaction at its core and one bad decision leads to another. And it also describes quite a lot of negative, selfish and frankly bad people. What struck me, even though Mopsa is mentally ill and on top of that clearly not a good person, she is by far less deranged than some of the other nasty characters in this book.

One of the main stories is the story of Benet, a young mother and extremely successful writer who lives in a beautiful house in Hampstead. At the beginning of the book her mentally ill and very unstable mother, Mopsa, comes to visit her and her little boy, James. Benet is a very loving mother and James is the most important person in her live.

The second main story revolves around another young mother, Carol, her son Jason and her young boyfriend Barry. Carol is a superficial and unrestrained woman with a flaming temper. At the age of 28 she is already a widow and has three children from different men. Two have been taken away, only the smallest, Jason, is living with her and Barry.

At first the two strands of the story run in parallel until a tragedy happens and Mopsa steals Jason.

I am tempted to write a lot more as there are a few aspects that I find interesting but unfortunately it isn’t possible, it would spoil too much. I can however say that the novel also explores the concept of parenthood and if someone who loves a child dearly might not be a better parent than a biological parent.

Something that struck me in this book is the overuse of the sedative Valium. This dates the book. Surely nowadays people in novels don’t pop pills like sweets and they might not use benzodiazepines as often anymore. This constant use of downers and alcohol is of course symbolical and just underlines that the people in the novel do not want to face any problems or consequences of their actions.

Ruth Rendell’s writing is suspenseful, her characterizations are psychologically plausible and the descriptions of different social milieus spot-on. Do I have to mention that I will certainly read another Ruth Rendell or Barbara Vine very soon?