In several dozen previous novels, Ruth Rendell has demonstrated equal facility in writing police procedurals (with her beloved Inspector Wexford mysteries) and sinister psychological suspense (in her novels written under the pen name “Barbara Vine”). She also has continued to craft superb suspense novels under her own name, and the latest such book is PORTOBELLO.
Named for (and set largely in the neighborhood of) one of London's most famous roads and markets, PORTOBELLO begins --- as the best suspense novels often do --- innocently enough, with a colorful description of the neighborhood's equally lively milieu: "You can buy anything there. Everything on earth is on sale: furniture, antiques, clothes, bedding, hardware, music, food and food and more food. Vegetables and fruit, meat and fish, and cheese and chocolate… You can buy a harp there or a birdcage, a stuffed bear or a wedding dress, or the latest bestseller…. The moment you turn out of Pembridge Road or Westbourne Grove or Chepstow Villas and set foot in the market, you feel a touch of excitement, an indrawing of breath, a pinch in the heart. And once you have been, you have to go again.... Its thread attaches itself to you and a twitch on it summons you to return."
Like many of the most colorful, historical and fascinating neighborhoods, though, Portobello Road is suffering something of an identity crisis. Living cheek-by-jowl with long-time residents --- shopkeepers, blue-collar workers and petty criminals --- many of them are young up-and-comers, gentrifying their adopted neighborhood and expecting certain levels of both comfort and safety that its more historical denizens might not be willing to grant them yet.
For the most part, these varied populations manage to ignore each other, but sometimes circumstances draw them together in surprising ways. When a young man named Joel Roseman, estranged from his wealthy father, loses a cash-filled envelope on the Portobello Road, a well-to-do art dealer named Eugene Wren finds the money when out on his daily quest to fulfill his addiction to a particular brand of sweets. He places an advertisement and receives two responses: one from a small-time crook who needs the cash to stave off the thugs who are threatening him, and the other from Joel Roseman himself, who quickly develops a bizarre fixation with Eugene's beautiful girlfriend.
As circumstances escalate and coincidences generate surprising connections, these characters from very different backgrounds and with very different agendas soon find themselves being drawn together --- as if by that invisible thread again --- in unlikely and potentially explosive ways. Old habits die hard, apparently, and the neighborhood's new inhabitants soon discover that Portobello Road, despite its skyrocketing rents and film-set geography, still retains more than a bit of its gritty past.
What makes Rendell's novels gripping, besides her facility for portraying characters with truly unsetting quirks, is the contrast between the razor-sharp precision, and the crispness and care of her language, with the truly disturbing situations and ugly motivations about which she writes. This juxtaposition between her text's dispassion and her characters' varying obsessions is chilling to read and fascinating to consider. And although readers will come away from PORTOBELLO with a certain understanding of this famous London neighborhood, they'll not soon forget its darker side.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 7, 2011