King Solomon’s Carpet by Barbara Vine
E-book on my iPad
Barbara Vine is a pseudonym of Ruth Rendell, the English mystery writer, or to give her her formal title, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, CBE.
Whichever name we use, she has an astonishing ability to conjure up fascinating characters, situations and plots from what appear to be the most mundane circumstances. Particularly when she is writing as Barbara Vine, she takes as her characters people who are ‘ordinary’ from one point of view, but whose circumstances and history make us realize that everyone is extraordinary in one way or another, that no-one’s life is entirely ‘normal’.
In King Solomon’s Carpet, the loose but unifying theme of the book centers around the London Underground. The book starts with the death of a privileged young woman on the Underground, a tale which seems at first to have no connection with what follows.
Jarvis Stringer is a man who has inherited the title to an abandoned school in West Hampstead, overlooking a branch line of the Underground. His sole interest in life is underground rail systems. He is writing a book about the London Underground, and spends his inheritance on regular holidays to visit similar metro systems around the world.
He moves into the school, which had been operated by his grandfather, who committed suicide when the school went out of business. Because of the size of the school, he has plenty of extra rooms, which he casually sub-lets to a variety of misfits who are attracted by the low rent. It is this group of people whose stories we explore.
They include Jed and his pet hawk Abelard; Tom, a young man whose musical talent has been blighted by a road accident and who ends up busking in the corridors of the Underground; a promiscuous young woman Tina and her children Jasper and Bienvida; and eventually Alice, who has abandoned her husband and baby to try to pursue a professional musical career.
There are many deeply involving side plots, including the touching story of Tina’s aged mother Cecilia, who finds it impossible to come to terms with her daughter’s lifestyle; Jasper’s gang of mates who urge each other on to more and more dangerous stunts on the underground; and even Jed’s torment in trying to maintain the health of his hawk. Alice’s story is a particularly sad one.
Into all of this arrives an enigmatic character Axel who clearly has a secret mission which is eventually to blow apart the lives of all of these people.
King Solomon’s Carpet is definitely not a cheerful book; but the story, after a slow start, becomes gripping and ends in a spectacular piece of irony. I enjoyed it very much.
As an aside, the Penguin e-book was very well formatted; but there were quite a lot of typographical errors, which appear to have been introduced because a printed version has been scanned and OCR’ed to create the digital edition. I find this pretty surprising in these days when surely most printed books are created from digital documents (unless, of course, these errors also appear in the printed copies, which I doubt).