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January 23, 2001

Books by Kay Kimbrough

Barbara Vine
Harmony Books, New York, 2000, $25.00.

Clodagh Brown is nineteen when she goes to London to attend a technical college and recover from a depression caused by a tragic accident for which she feels responsible. She lives in a basement flat provided by her mother's cousin and his wife. Unable to ride the London subway because of claustrophobia, she takes the bus to school on the days she does not skip classes altogether to investigate the architecture of London, which fascinates her. On one occasion she is directed to an underpass because of a blocked-off crime scene, and she collapses in terror while trying to reach the end of the tunnel.

Rescued by a young eccentric, Michael Silverman, known as Silver because of his almost white hair, Clodagh begins her adventure that leads to the complications of the plot. Silver is living an experiment in goodness, consciously accepting anyone into his life and into his flat on the top floor of his parents' house in spite of criminal records or character defects. With the confidence of youth, he expects to do good to anyone who needs him, although he does prevent evil when it is happening in his presence. Clodagh recognizes that she has been longing for "goodness" for a long time, so she is attracted to Silver immediately.

She does have some doubts about Silver's generosity at times, for he seems to have no regard for his money, inherited from his grandmother, that is enough to live on, but not a grand fortune. Unable to suppress her strong pragmatic bent, she quarrels with him about this carelessness.

While carrying out his experiment in goodness, Silver has learned to enjoy climbing on the roofs of London with his friend Wim for pleasure, excitement, challenge and escape from life on the ground level. Clodagh is already in love with climbing, a practice which had led to her friend's death and her exile to London. These young people are like children climbing trees, towers, mountains or castle walls. They are still immature, enjoying spying through windows, getting away with something they shouldn't do.

Although there are several mysteries presented to throw the reader off the tract, the central plot stems from this practice of going on the roofs. An adopted mixed-race child has been abducted by his parents because the social service has decided the adoption is bad for him. He should go to a mixed-race couple, no matter how happy he is. Spotting the family, who have frequently appeared in newspapers and are in hiding in a neighboring flat, Silver and Clodagh determine to help them. Their efforts lead to the conclusion, highly improbable but no stranger than real life, solving one of the novel's mysteries.

Along the way, the two young people fall in love and discover that their powers of doing good are limited by the very people they try to help, leading Clodagh to wonder about whether one should consider the kind of people in need of help before getting involved with them. They encounter true evil, dishonesty, greed and indifference in one character after another. They are innocent, inexperienced and trusting, learning about the disguises people create and the lies they tell themselves to get their way in painful steps toward wisdom.

Writing the Wexford mysteries as Ruth Rendell or psychological thrillers as Barbara Vine, the author always has a sermon to deliver without preaching or being obvious. The treatment of children by parents is one of her typical subjects; evil people have had some form of abuse as children in her books. Sometimes the abuse is neglect, sometimes physical battering and sometimes extreme indulgence, but there is always an explanation for human behavior.

A botched illegal abortion and a child who should have been taken from sick parents cause the tragedy in this novel. Other issues surface, such as the unfairness of the class system and the increasing materialism of culture. There is one bright spot: the cleaning woman Clodagh befriends lives a contented and meaningful life. On the other hand, the successful actress who loses her husband to another woman is miserable, regretting the amount of money she spent to provide her husband with a lovely home more than she regrets the loss of him.

GRASSHOPPER opens slowly; nothing much happens for the first one hundred pages. It takes patience to get into the story. Unlike some of Vine's other books, it ends almost too quickly, leaving one story, that of Liv, unfinished. It is well worth reading, however, for its understanding of the growing-up process, its array of characters and the varieties of human dramas they perform. The character of Clodagh is created with restraint. She grows up in the book, becoming good herself without leaving behind her practical self and her refreshing honesty.


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