The Testament of Vida Tremayne by Sarah Vincent
It’s no secret here on the Ramblings that I often don’t get on that well with modern novels. However, sometimes current books will just click; for example, I had good experiences with short story collections from Lara Williams and Marina Warner, and I enjoyed Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale pre-blog. When I read about Sarah Vincent’s novel “The Testament of Vida Tremayne” on the Mirabile Dictu blog I was intrigued – the subject matter sounded fascinating and Kat thought very highly of the book. An interview with the author confirmed that this could well be a book for me, as we shared several favourite authors, and so I was delighted when Sarah very kindly offered me a copy of her book to review.
“The Testament of Vida Tremayne”, from Three Hares Publishing, takes as its heart the mother-daughter relationship; which can be a most complex thing, as I know from my own family. Author Vida Tremayne, best known for her book “The Gingerbread House”, has had some kind of breakdown; her last successful book was some years ago; her husband has left her; her prickly daughter Dory is busy and estranged; and she’s stuck in a ramshackle house on the Welsh borders. Her story is related in two strands, running alongside in the book – there is Dory’s tale, as she picks up the pieces of mother’s life, while Vida sits catatonic in hospital; and there is Vida’s journal from some months back, relating the events that led up to the breakdown. And then there is Rhiannon….
Rhiannon is a strange one; a kind of new age type, talking about chakra and animal totems, she turns up claiming to be Vida’s greatest fan and gradually insinuates herself into Vida’s life. Aged somewhere in the middle of the menopausal Vida and the younger Dory, her identity is a little fluid and she’s frankly unnerving. Through the journals, we learn more about her from Vida’s prodding questions, and she seems to have had a difficult younger life with all her creativity stifled. Clinging obsessively to the idea that Vida will produce another successful novel, Rhiannon persuades her to take part in “The Programme”, a kind of course designed to rekindle her waning powers as a writer. But all is not what it seems, and a kind of power struggle ensues between the two women which leaves you wondering quite what it is that Rhiannon is after…
Meanwhile, Dory is trying to make sense of what caused her mother’s decline, whilst fighting against her guilt and conflicted feelings. She has bitter memories of childhood, of being neglected in favour of her mother’s writing, and nothing would be more convenient than leaving Vida’s loyal fan to keep an eye on her in hospital, while Dory goes back to her busy city life and her business. But her nagging conscience and her suspicion of Rhiannon’s motives won’t let her do this, and the longer she stays in her mother’s house, the odder things get. Add into the mix a strong and silent local builder, plus rumours of a puma on the loose, and you end up with a very suspenseful and thrilling mix!
Needless to say, I absolutely loved “The Testament of Vida Tremayne”! It was one of those books you can’t put down, and I found myself staying up late to finish it, desperate to find out what happened. The writing is excellent, both strands of the story capturing the voices of the two individual women really well, and it was fascinating to cut between the two viewpoints, seeing both Dory’s and Vida’s take on their past. Rhiannon was masterfully portrayed, and there were some fascinating elements involved in the tale, from speculation about the source of the creative impulse, the form that the muse can take, fertility vs barrenness and of course that thorny problem of mothers and daughters. The sense of place was strong, with the bleak and isolated landscape (which was so much part of the plot) being conjured brilliantly; and the book built to a powerful and exciting climax, with a chilling coda. One thing I particularly liked was that Sarah Vincent sprinkled the tale with pleasing little references to other authors, from Mary Webb to Elizabeth Taylor. The importance of books, authors and storytelling is never far away from the surface – as Rhiannon says at one point:
When I went into Care, my library ticket was the most important thing in the world to me. I read everything I could get my hands on. Those stories, those authors saved my life… For me those authors, my favourite writers were my saviours, my friends, you know?
As someone who’s often used reading as a coping mechanism, I can kind of identify with that…
So “The Testament of Vida Tremayne” was one of those rare things – a modern novel that I loved and I can highly recommend! If you love books about writers, books with suspense, books that look a little deeper into things, books tackling the mother-daughter issue, or just need a really good read, then you need look no further than this one!