I have been a fan of Ruth Rendell, the British mystery writer, for years, but her latest novel, "Portobello", is something of a departure for her. For one thing, there isn't really any character you could call crazy, and for another, the only murder is accidental. What Rendell has done in this novel is present a slice of London life, circa 2010, not the London of tea rooms and green parks and intimate theaters, rather the gritty goings-on of what we might call the underclass, some of whom work, sort of, and some of whom live on what the government metes out. Juxtaposed to the ramshackle lives of those who get by are Ella and Eugene, a long-engaged, middle-aged couple. Ella is a doctor; Eugene runs an art gallery. When their paths cross with Lance, Gemma, and Fize, there is trouble with a capital T.
As always, Rendell's characters are vividly drawn and quirky, if not eccentric. Gemma is a pretty young mother who uses men for all manner of purposes, often playing one against the other. Lance is in love with her, but she kicks him out when he hits her and knocks out a tooth. She has better things in mind for herself than being kicked around by an unemployed lout. Lance's friend Fize (Fizal), a Muslim who drinks and loves his mother, moves in with Gemma, mainly as a babysitter so Gemma can go out. Fize's friend Ian is the closest thing to a psychopath in the novel. There is no doubt he is capable of murder and worse, but when a Romanian immigrant is burned to death in a fire that Ian sets, it is an accident. Ian and Fize, his reluctant accomplice, don't realize the house they're burning is occupied.
With this unholy trinity, Rendell presents the sordid lives of many of Britain's young. A young man with nothing to do and nowhere special to go, a basically decent Muslim who loses his cultural bearings and gets swept along by the current, a teenage mother with ambition and limited opportunity. Of the three, I put my money on Gemma, but time will tell. What is wonderful about this novel is the way Rendell takes us right into the thick of the noise, the crowds, the shops, and the hustle of Portobello Road. A crossroads of sorts, it attracts all kinds and classes of people, who in rubbing elbows sometimes throw off sparks.
Eugene is a pip. He's likable enough, I suppose, but he's a bit unformed for a forty-something art dealer. His track record with women is abysmal, yet he has a loyal companion in Ella, a physician who treats all sorts, including Gemma and Joel, who, yes, I guess would qualify as the crazy and menacing, but ultimately harmless, character Rendell is known for. Ella is on the cusp of forty and would like to marry, perhaps have children, but Eugene is evasive. He is reluctant even to live with Ella because he harbors a deep, dark secret. He is an addict. He is addicted to chocorange, a sugarless sweet that he absolutely can't get enough of. He hoards these candies all over his house and in his pockets the way an alcoholic keeps bottles of vodka in his underwear drawer or behind the commode. He his ashamed; he tries to quit; he succumbs to temptation and feels wretched. Yet, despite his obvious suffering, there is something ludicrous about a grown man who can't get married because he cares more about chocorange than a loving woman.
I'm tempted to say that Rendell dissects the corrupting influence of materialism, but that would be too simple. Portobello Road is a place where practically anything can be bought, from trash to treasure. Eugene's art gallery is cheek by jowl with kabab stands and cheap jewelry boutiques. His home is comfortable and well-furnished, a perfect setting for an educated, professional couple, while Lance lives with his Uncle Gib, a reformed thief who now cares absolutely nothing about things of any kind. His house is worth a lot, but it's falling apart, and he couldn't care less. Rendell doesn't so much indicate that wealth, even relative prosperity, is a bad thing as show what living like Tantalus with the world's goodies just out of reach can do to unformed or chaotic minds. Joel, Ella's patient, is obesessed with her and lives alone in the dark in a flat his wealthy father pays for. His family is broken, and his father's response is to throw money at the problem in order not to have to deal with Joel or confront his own demons. Joel's difficulty isn't material temptation; he lives like an ascetic, but his attachment to "stuff" is as pathological as Uncle Gib's or Ian's. What should our relation be to the objects around us? Rendell seems to ask.
In "Portobello" we have a whole range of socio-economic classes crashing into each other like calving icebergs. We see death, theft, lies, family breakdown, loneliness, obsession, addiction, weakness, and grief, and what kind of an ending does Rendell provide? Not the one you might expect. Rendell's vision is generally dark, and even though the guilty may be brought to light in true English-mystery tradition, you wouldn't necessarily call her endings happy. In this novel, however, there is a twist. In a brief few chapters, everything sorts itself out. Ian goes to prison, which he deserves even though he didn't mean to kill the Romanian; Gemma and Lance reunite, and she will be the making of him; Ella and Eugene marry; Uncle Gib ends up with his prophet's widow; and everyone lives happily ever after. As a great American writer once wrote, "Wouldn't it be pretty to think so."