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A 'Present' Of Politics, Sex And Uncommon Insight

Barbara Vine is the penname of prolific crime author and UK Labor Party peer Ruth Rendell. She once told an interviewer that she has read all of Freud — and it shows. Her novels plumb the depths of paranoia and the grip of obsession and all sorts of irrational compulsions with uncommon insight.

The Birthday Present, Vine's latest, is set in the 1990s and follows Ivor Tesham, a rising Tory politician with a secret penchant for kinky sex. Ivor arranges a mock kidnapping as a birthday present for his mistress Hebe. When the pseudo-abduction goes awry, Ivor scrambles to hide his involvement.

Told alternately by Rob, Ivor's brother-in-law, and Jane, a friend of Ivor's mistress, the narrative structure of The Birthday Present keeps the reader one step removed from events but still intimately acquainted with the characters. Rob's affection for Ivor is tinged with frustration and disgust at his dangerous and inconsiderate antics, while Jane's distant admiration is tainted with jealousy and the occasional delusion. Both are fully fleshed-out beings, psychologically compelling and poignantly believable.

A Vine thriller is not so much about events but the way characters process those events — the dark thoughts that are often more terrifying and malicious than what actually takes place. The bulk of The Birthday Present unfolds in the uneasy years following the botched kidnapping, during which Ivor blithely ignores his culpability and presses on to political stardom, Jane plots a twisted revenge and Rob tortures himself over the simmering scandal. On the surface, these characters' lives are mundane, but their inner instability keeps the plot edging forward with a delightfully rendered sense of disquiet.

The Birthday Present leans heavily on psychology, but it still has the feeling of a tightly constructed thriller, rather than an exercise in therapeutic introspection, with descriptions of the London landscape and political climate that are particularly exacting. It's no wonder that Vine has been called a mystery writer for writers. When that master of emotional depth Toni Morrison finishes writing a book, the only writer she can bear to read, she says, is Ruth Rendell.

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Chloe Schama