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The Minotaur    by Barbara Vine order for
by Barbara Vine
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Vintage, 2006 (2005)
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* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

The irrepressibly prolific and consistently impressive writer Barbara Vine (a.k.a. Ruth Rendell) - 'the best mystery writer in the English-speaking world' (Time) and 'a writer who is at the height of her powers' (Daily Mail) - has now given readers one of her most disturbing and provocative mysteries, The Minotaur.

First, let us consider the name that serves as the title of Barbara Vine's mesmerizing novel: The Minotaur of ancient Greek mythology, as readers will recall, was an unpleasant creature with a bull's head and man's body. It seems that King Minos of Crete had failed to make a required sacrifice of a bull to the god Poseidon, and that unforgiving god was so perturbed that he had caused the king's wife, Queen PasiphaŽ, to lust after the previously required sacrifice. Well, the troubled offspring of that divinely ordered but admittedly unseemly union was the Minotaur (which must have been fair enough warning to the Greeks that they should neither defy gods nor engage in unseemly behaviors with other species). Eventually confined in the infamously difficult labyrinth, the voracious monster regularly devoured sacrificial human beings until it was finally stopped by Theseus (whose own life - not coincidentally - was also complicated by plenty of relationship problems).

Now, as for the enthusiastically recommended novel, The Minotaur, consider the following: Kerstin Kvist, visiting England from her home in Sweden, takes a job at Lydstep Old Hall, a singular estate with plenty of atmosphere and entirely too many mysteries. Julia is the impatient matriarch who presides over the Cosway family which includes four daughters - Zorah, Ida, Ella, and Winifred - and a son, John - the person for whom Kerstin has been hired as nurse and attendant. When she is introduced to John, she is told simply that he has been diagnosed as schizophrenic, he will not tolerate any physical contact or any deviations from his obsessive schedule, and - regardless of any other problems that might arise - he must take his daily medications (otherwise John's behavior may become a bit - different).

'There's madness in the family,' Kerstin is told. 'And of course what John wants John gets,' she hears from someone else. She also soon realizes that the Cosways keep some of the rooms shut up and locked in the old homestead; the most closely guarded room, it seems, is the library (which, as it turns out, has a rather intricate floorplan). The Cosways, as Kerstin discovers, are a fractured family entrapped in their own labyrinth of family secrets, vanities, and prejudices. They cannot escape the past, they are mired down in the present, and they cannot accept the inevitabilities of the future. And the more Kerstin learns about Lydstep Old Hall and the Cosways, the more she worries that she may have made a frightening mistake in taking the job. Then, when people begin dying - suddenly and violently - Kerstin is even more concerned.

Barbara Vine pulls out all the stops in The Minotaur and deftly uses the conventions of the 19th century gothic novel to deliver a chillingly vivid tale of greed, passion, and murder. Find out why P. D. James says that 'Barbara Vine has transcended her genre by her remarkable imaginative power to explore and illuminate the dark corners of the human psyche.' Discover why Scott Turow says that Barbara Vine is 'surely one of the greatest novelists presently working in our language.' Find out why I offer this promise: Readers will not soon forget the monstrous personalities and the dark secrets that threaten to destroy Lydstep Old Hall!

2nd Review by Rheta Van Winkle:

Barbara Vine's The Minotaur is a fascinating study of a dysfunctional family in the late sixties in a small town in England. The main character, Kerstin Kvist is a young Swedish nurse, fresh out of school, whose English and self-confidence are both a bit shaky. She begins writing a diary immediately after meeting the family that she will be working for, and she also begins drawing pictures in her diary, a foreshadowing of her later career as a cartoonist. She tells us that before drawing in the diary she had never drawn anything except a Dog Growing, which is a dog drawn on a folded sheet of paper, which when opened becomes long. 'It's best to make it a dachshund or a basset hound because it should have a long stretch of body between forelegs and hindlegs.' She's inspired by the vine-covered house to attempt to draw it on the inside cover of her diary, though, and continues to draw the various members of the family on later pages.

As the story begins, Kerstin appears briefly in the present, and the story immediately shifts back into the past, where she begins her account of her experience taking care of forty-year-old John Cosway many years ago. John and his sisters are all in their thirties and forties, and their mother is an old woman. The age difference seems to intimidate Kerstin and keep her from speaking up several times when she observes actions that are troubling to her. She is an excellent narrator, separate from the family by age, nationality, and language, and wondering frequently whether she doesn't understand what's happening for one of those reasons alone.

Her care of the son, John, is minimal. His mother directs his life, administers his medicine, and tells Kerstin right away that it was John's wish that she be hired, not hers. He is being heavily drugged by his mother, and Kerstin doesn't really approve, but she keeps that and much else to herself, only writing it in her diary. The whole family refers to the son as mad, and only after he begins to refuse his medications does Kerstin realize what is really wrong with him.

Not only do we watch the family disintegrate, but Kerstin herself suffers from her close association with them all, and struggles to maintain her own character. The reader is kept mystified with little hints and tidbits of information throughout the book, learning with Kerstin what really happened all those years ago. Her low-key sense of humor and her dismay at what she sees as the atrocious, immoral behavior of the women of this family make her a delightful, likeable character, and the book a thoroughly enjoyable psychological thriller.

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