The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy

The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy is a novel by Barbara Vine, pseudonym of British author Ruth Rendell. Ruth Barbara Rendell, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, CBE, (born 17 February 1930), is an acclaimed English crime writer, known for her many psychological thrillers and murder mysteries.


Rendell is popularly known for her remarkable imaginative power and deep understanding of the darkest recesses of the human psyche through the exploration of themes such as sexual obsession, the effects of misperceived communication, the impact of chance and coincidence, and the humanity of the criminals involved. Rendell is famous for rendering sharp insights into the human mind through her gifted writing skills, as well as her ability to harbor convincing plots surrounding the characters. Other books by her include A Judgment in Stone, The Face of Trespass, Live flesh, Talking to Strange Men, The Killing Doll, Going Wrong ,Adam And Eve, Pinch me, King Solomon’s Carpet, A Fatal Inversion and Asta’s Book.


The Chimney Sweeper’s boy is a novel about consequences and co incidences. Co incidence in the way Ursula and Gerald, the protagonists, meet. Consequence through the way that co incidence causes lives to unfold. Like Ursula Candless being the widow of erstwhile novelist Gerald Candless. The book chills ones bone marrow from the very first page with an extract from Gerald Candless’s book- Less is more. The ultimate clue and mystery lies in this first page itself but the reader cannot guess that till the end. The book cannot be called a crime novel; it’s more of a psychological thriller.


Gerald is a big man with a head journalists called ‘leonine’, with a grizzled curly mane- the color of iron filings. He is described as a well built man, almost bordering on the gigantic. Although a dedicated, loving father to his daughters Sarah and Hope, he surreptitiously avoids his wife Ursula, a woman weathered by their sham of a marriage and children who ignore her as if she did not bear them, as though she did not exist. Ursula loathes him for what he did to her life and blames him for taking away her girls from her. All their love is for their father, Gerald. They all are gathered at the Lundy View house for the weekend along with guests Titus Romney, fellow novelist and his wife, Julia. An absurd game of scissors (mentioned at a number of locations in the plot) is played amongst those gathered, barring Ursula who prefers a walk. The game leaves the Romney’s unimpressed and the Candless’ gleeful and chirpy because it’s their secret game which once again boggled the new comers. Post this game Gerald takes the guests for a tour of his study and hands over a manuscript over to Romney, which doesn’t reappear till the end of the novel. When Gerald walks the Romney’s back to their hotel, he spots someone or something that disturbs him infinitely and he dies of a heart seizure that same night, quite mysteriously.


For a frail Hope and the sexually spirited Sarah, however, death counsels the voguish proposal of a personal memoir. Sarah embarks upon writing one. But her researches turn up very disturbing facts about the man they believed to be their father: proof that he was not who he claimed, he was not Gerald Candless at all. And then the story unfolds; of reasons, of under hand emotions, of betrayal and ultimately the reason that made Gerald abandon not only his family but also his very identity. A moth, a logo on every book published by Candless in his lifetime ultimately leads Sarah to her father’s real brother. The manuscript plays its innocuous role at the end and leaves the reader wondering, depressed and a little disappointed.


The book is cleverly penned, without a doubt. It’s gripping due to the fact that Ursula is almost blind to the fact that something is not quite right with Gerald’s persona. The research which Sarah later carries out is the experiences Ursula has already gone through. The ambiguity of the plot is in the fact that the reader can make the links and connections but the characters do not do the same in spite of the facts. This leads to a slight disappointment, but the twist and turns more or less make up for it. Although Gerald dies at the very start of the novel, the story is essentially about him, essentially his. The theme is also compelling; you understand it from half way through, but it’s got its own terrific complexity and Vine hooks the reader by making them want to know the exquisite details of the story. The details aren’t just technical things like guns, alibis, idiotic and awkward explanations, and the rest that normal “mysteries” are teeming with. The imagery of the scenery at the Lundy house beach paint a colorful picture for the reader while setting the moods for the plot, as also in some cases has the effect of causing a chill to run through one when the cover page of “A white webfoot” is described. The butterfly on the cover page has been ingeniously incorporated into the plot. The portrayal of human emotions is also riveting.


It’s long been said that Barbare Vine writes with compelling articulacy on gay relationships, and that’s reiterated as in the suffocating No Night Is Too Long. The prose is simple, no weighty language, which is what makes the book a pleasure to read. The Title is connected to the book by a thin thread but one which is sure to fascinate the reader. The chances are that you will see the end coming from about halfway and thus the book loses marks for subtlety, but with Vine such a mistress of characterization and small, everyday horrors, at least you won’t want to put it down until you get there.


Anjali Garg

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