PORTOBELLO by Ruth Rendell

Book Quote:

“Our lord would have smoked if there’d been any tobacco about in the land of Galilee. He drank, didn’t he?”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage (NOV 04, 2010)

Prolific mystery writer Ruth Rendell’s work can be divided into two categories: the Inspector Wexford novels and her psychological novels. Portobello falls into the latter category and fans of Ruth Rendell know what to expect. The novel concentrates on the poisoned lives of a handful of characters who are connected to London’s Portobello Road, and these characters are as varied and colourful as the district itself. Rendell brings her characters together with her usual skill–although the heavy reliance on coincidence argues against the idea that London is, after all, a city of millions of people.

The novel’s first chapter offers a brief overview of the history of Portobello Road as well as a brief introduction to the Wren and Gibson families. A piece of post WWII good fortune allows the Wrens to move to the upscale Chepstow Villas while the Gibsons are doomed to the margins of society. The novel then bounds ahead several decades to the next generation. Gilbert Gibson, a repeat offender who’s now a middle-age sanctimonious, parsimonious member of the Church of the Children of Zebulun lives in a slum in a neighbourhood undergoing significant gentrification. He’s the “agony uncle” for the Zebulun magazine and offers exuberant moral and spiritual castigation to the sinners misguided enough to seek advice. On the other end of the social spectrum, fifty-year-old bachelor Eugene Wren owns a swanky art gallery, and his exquisite Chepstow Villas house is tastefully decorated with valuable antiques.

After a mugging, Eugene Wren discovers an envelope stuffed full of cash. He decides to place an ad in the paper asking the person who lost the money to call at his home and identify the precise sum. This act brings two very different young men into Eugene’s life–Lance, the terminally unemployed nephew of Gilbert Gibson, and Joel Roseman, a seriously disturbed man ejected from his wealthy home.

Rendell’s focus here is obsession, addictions and class differences. The have-nots such as Lance and his criminal pals are worlds apart from upper-middle-class Eugene Wren, but both sides of the economic divide fail to recognize the humanity in those more, or less, fortunate than themselves. Lance, for example, sees Eugene as “White Hair,” while Eugene sees Lance as “a non-descript sort of young man, all skin and bone, fairish, potato-faced but what did it matter?”

Eugene Wren is distracted by the contemplation of marriage to his long-term girlfriend Ella, a doctor, and so the meeting with Lance is just a minor aside. Lance, however, doesn’t forget the house and its contents. He stews over the high-end items he noted in the house and his obsession and resentment gradually grow:
”He was soon cursing the kind of people who don’t need to work until nine thirty or ten. What did that rich guy do for a living?”

Meanwhile Eugene experiences no small reluctance at the idea of total cohabitation, but this worry is superseded by his concern about his recent weight gain. To combat his spreading paunch, he begins buying diet sweets, and this minor habit rapidly morphs into a secret addiction. While Lance stews with class resentment, he’s under pressure to get quick cash, and Eugene struggles to hide his habit from a perceptive Ella. All the characters are set on an inevitable collision course.

The secret lives, obsessions and concerns of the various characters are relayed with almost savage delight but also with a faint whiff of condescension. While no one class of characters is treated better than another (Joel’s very wealthy family, for example, is quite appalling), the lower-class characters are portrayed in various shades of criminality–and inept criminals at that (at one point a chocolate cake is stolen and consumed). Fans of Rendell won’t be able to help themselves, and for its geographical focus, Portobello will recall Rendell’s novel The Rottweiler. Portobello, however, while malicious in tone is not Rendell’s darkest, and at this point, The Tree of Hands still reigns as Rendell’s masterpiece.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 39 readers
PUBLISHER: Scribner (September 7, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Ruth Rendell
EXTRAS: Reading Guide

Guy Savage’s review of Tigerlily’s Orchids

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our reviews of some of Rendell’s outstanding stand-alone novels:

Read a review of the first Insp. Wexford in this long series:

and more recent:

Also, some of her books written as Barbara Vine


Inspector Wexford Mysteries:

Standalone Mysteries & Psychological Thrillers:


Movies from books:

November 4, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Mystery/Suspense, United Kingdom, y Award Winning Author

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