“Many people lead virtuous lives not because they resist temptation, but because temptation never comes their way.”
As a long-time fan of Ruth Rendell, I am always ready to grab her latest book, so fast on the heels of Portobello comes another stand-alone tale, Tigerlily’s Orchids. Just as Portobello focused on the occupants of a particular neighbourhood, Tigerlily’s Orchids concentrates on the residents of the flats of Lichfield House in the outer suburbs of London.
The newest resident of the flats in Stuart Font, a fortunate young man in many ways. He has the looks of a male model (and the vanity to match) and he’s just inherited 400,000 pounds from an eccentric great-aunt. While Stuart’s parents urge their son to get a job (and even send possible employment his way), Stuart has other plans. Against his parents’ advice to wait out the falling home prices, he spends half the inheritance on a flat in Lichfield house. With the rest of the money, he intends to be a gentleman of leisure and perhaps take a year or two before seeking employment. His plans are complicated by the fact he has an expensive lover–Claudia, a deputy fashion editor for a newspaper. She expects to be taken to the best restaurants and even at one point manoeuvres the purchase of a necklace for a mere 1000 pounds. One of the reasons Stuart is disinclined to work is so that he can continue his complicated affair with Claudia, and that means he needs to keep his days free so that they can spend them in bed together while her husband is at work.
When the book begins, Stuart is planning a house-warming party, and he’s drawing up a guest list that will include all the other residents: three single female students, Dr. Michael Constantine and his wife, a couple of middle-aged singles, Marius Potter, Rose Preston-Jones, and Olwen, a sixty year old alcoholic. Also in attendance will be a couple of Stuart’s friends, the building’s caretaker and his buxom wife and an assortment of neighbours. As it turns out, the party is a significant occasion that ends badly.
The novel establishes a growing sense of malignancy which is coupled with the idea that no one will emerge unscathed from the events that take place. To describe Tigerlily’s Orchids as a crime novel is to ignore the subtle nuances of the plot, for while many crimes take place in these pages, not all of these crimes can be labelled neatly with a perp and a victim. Rendell’s characters are considered normal people–the sort of people we know and work with. A fair number of the characters have something or another to be ashamed about, and the crimes in these pages run the gamut from murder to enabling addiction. In Portobello, addiction played a role (the main character was addicted to diet sweets), and in Tigerlily’s Orchids we see the same sort of behaviours: addiction coupled with obsession. While Olwen’s addiction to alcohol moves blindly forward, gathering momentum as the book continues, it becomes clear that many other characters suffer from dangerous obsessions. Stuart is obsessed with his lover, Claudia, but eventually those roles as reversed, but there are several other obsessions afoot. And these obsessions, as Rendell so deliciously shows, blind the various characters to reality with catastrophic results. Dr. Michael Constantine, for example, is a non-practicing physician who writes a column. His obsession with crushing any sort of non-medical treatments through his writing takes him on a one-way ticket to unemployment as he refuses to even consider any other point of view.
By far my favourite character is Olwen:
Reclining, her feet up on a cushion, she reflected as she often did, on having, at the age of sixty, attained her lifelong aim. Through two marriages, both unsatisfactory, seemingly endless full-time work, houses she had disliked, uncongenial stepchildren, and dour relations, she was at last doing what she had always wanted to do but had rigidly, for various reasons, stringently controlled. She was drinking the unlimited amount of alcohol she had longed for. She was, she supposed, but without rancour or regret, drinking herself to death.
Olwen has given up on relationships and humanity in general. She doesn’t want human communication. Instead she’s locked in a tango of death with alcohol. She’s devised a way of coping with people–especially people who preach to her or try to get in the way of her addiction. Her main, practically only, response to anyone is “not really”:
Olwen had long ago discovered that this was a response which may be made with impunity to almost any enquiry, including “Are you well?’ and “Are you free on Saturday?” Not that people often asked her anything. She made it plain that she was mostly inaccessible.
Rendell proceeds to show just how that phrase “not really” works so well for Olwen’s desire to alienate people. Think I might try it out.
The lives of Rendell’s characters are set against the economic downturn, and the action reflects the changes. As shops close or hold desperate sales, the characters respond accordingly. The recession impacts the characters’ relationships, and it certainly turns up the heat. In one scene, Stuart loads up on furniture from a local shop. He doesn’t particularly like the stuff he buys but it’s on sale, and he can’t resist buying a mirror for the vanity feedback it offers.
Tigerlily’s Orchids explores the horrors of suburbia, and here Rendell creates a neighbourhood crucible, adding just enough of the ingredients–passion, jealousy, and obsession until she achieves combustion. While The Tree of Hands is my favourite Rendell (and I doubt it’ll ever be supplanted), Tigerlily’s Orchids is a welcome return to this author.