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?

18 thoughts on “Ruth Rendell: The Tree of Hands (1984)

  1. I’ve not read this one yet–I don’t think I even own it, so I will have to remedy that soon! Is it a novel or interlinked short stories? She is always good in my opinion–I can’t think of a book by her I read and didn’t like (though some I do like better than others). Her writing career really has been a long one so it is interesting to see how the times influence the things she writes about–she always seems very socially conscious. I will have to read one of her books sometime soon, too. Have you read A Dark Adapted Eye? That is one of my favorites!

    • It is a novel, all the parallel stories are linked. I liked it a lot, maybe A Judgment in Stone is more rounded, if one can say that but The Tree of Hands is a good book, multi-layered. I don’t think I have read A Dark Adapted Eye. I still got King Solomon’s Carpet and Gallowglass that I haven’t read yet. Socially conscious is a good way of putting it. She goes far beyond the purely psychological.

      • This is such a good book. You may struggle with the first 50 pages which are a little pedestrian albeit necessary to set the scene, but the story quickly becomes riveting. Ruth Rendell’s characterizations are superb and without giving too much away, my heart bled for Barry and I cheered at the ending. Which is a testament to the power of good writing. I would also recommend Keys to the Street, A Fatal Inversion (for children of the 60s and 70s), A Dark Adapted Eye, and The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy. And Murder Being Once Done if you like an old fashioned Wexford.

  2. Glad you liked it. There’s a film version of it but I haven’t seen it.

    I liked the way Rendell showed how appallingly selfish and disconnected Mopsa was–the way she didn’t really think too much about what she was doing when she … well she did what she did. She just thought she was fixing the problem.

    • I agree but I didn’t think she was the worst of the lot. At least she had the excuse of being really ill whereas all the others are driven purely by selfishness and greed.

  3. I enjoy Ruth Rendell’s psychological novels much more than her Wexford ones, but I know many readers love them, too. I read A Dark Adapted Eye last year and was very impressed by it, and The Brimstone Wedding has to be in my all time top 50.

    • I need to get hold of Dark Adapted Eye. I know that many readers enjoy the Wexford series I those I read were far from being bad but you do read a series mostly or at least to a large extent because of the inspector/detective etc and I seem to remember I didn’t find Wexford all that fascinating.
      I amended your comment :). How I hate it, I do it all the time and leave comments full of typos because I hit post before rereading and I am so bad at typing.

  4. Great review, Caroline! I am so intrique with your review, a suspense book with well written characters sounds like the kind of book I couldn’t put down.

    1 bad thing lead to another thing will definitley keep me glued. I really have to keep my eyes open for this writer.

  5. I checked my frequent bookstore today and they don’t have Ruth Rendell on their list 😦
    Will have to try other bookstore when I have time to do a thorough book-search

    • I think because they are a little bit different in tone. She has written a series of novels with a detective that came out under hername Rendell and the purely psychological thrillers were written under Barbara Vine but I have a feeling that got a bit blurred later on.

  6. Pingback: Teaser Tuesday and New Books to Read « Polychrome Interest

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