Thursday, April 14, 2011

Books Yay!: The Crocodile Bird, by Ruth Rendell

The Crocodile Bird is a story constantly on the verge of something really special, but in the end remains firmly in beach book territory, slightly fluffier than it could be.  The book is the story of Liza Beck, daughter of a controlling, murderous woman named Eve who has kept Liza isolated for her entire life, bound up in Eve's fixation on the estate in which they live, Shrove House.  We meet Liza on the occasion of her escape from Shrove, as she flees before her mother's impending trial for murder.  Liza has run away to Sean, an estate gardener, for refuge, and must explain her life to him.

The story Liza tells is a dark one.  Eve is clearly deeply unwell, and is extremely defensive of Shrove, which she thought would be hers.  Traumatized by the outside world, Eve has decided to keep Liza isolated from it, teaching her at home and never taking her outside of the grounds.  Needless to say, this makes Liza's few experiences with strangers and civilization awkward and strained.  At an early age, Liza sees her mother kill her first victim.  Murder becomes understood as an acceptable response to threats to the life and station of the Beck women, and that intruder is not the only one Liza sees Eve kill.  Still, Liza's recollection of her childhood is not necessarily an unhappy one, and her mother has done an excellent job of educating her.

Liza understands that her mother kills when her life is threatened - or she perceives that it is - and when she inevitably runs in to tension with Sean, she begins to contemplate the same path.  Sean is kind of a controlling jerk, but it's not malicious, it's just that misguided relationship bungling you run into at a young age.  Tension emerges as Liza considers her options.

This isn't an intense piece of literature, but it's an engaging story with a lot of interesting and complex relationships.  I really enjoyed it and even though some of the plot was a little slow, it was never oppressively so, and the female characters in particular were really well developed.  It was nice to see - this will sound weird - strong, messed up women who were not painted as being a stereotypical kind of crazy.  Instead, they are presented as people with clear motivations, even if those motivations are deeply problematic.  Definitely a good vacation read!

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