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Reviews: The Minotaur, by Barbara Vine

The Minotaur is the story of a family, the Cosways, as seen through the eyes of a young Swedish woman hired as a nurse, Kirsten (pronounced Shashtan) Kvist. She keeps a diary of the people she meets at Lydstep Old Hall, a house that remains locked in the Victorian period.
The family consists of Mrs. Cosway, a cantankerous elderly woman who has nothing nice to say about anyone; Winnifred, set to marry the village rector; Ella, a teacher who is in love with an artist who lives in the village and befriends the narrator; Ida, whose place in the novel is is that of housekeeper and all-round do-gooder; Zorah, the only one of the Cosway sisters to ever get married; and John, their brother, who has autism but was incorrectly disnosed as schizophrenic. John is the most tragic character and really the only one that the reader will feel sympathy for--aside from Kisten, who is the most perceptive person living in Lydstep Old Hall. He is brilliant, but hopelessly misunderstood. He spends much of his time in the vast old labyrinth-like library, solving mathematical problems. All the children are in their thirties and early forties. The fact that the daughters were born in the '20s makes their unmarried, and in some ways unmarriageable, state more pathetic.

What Barbara Vine does best is construct characters who are real and yet at the same time unreal, and she does this brilliantly in The Minotaur. The time period is the 1960s, but the family, and the house they reside in, still lives in the 1860s. Mrs. Cosway makes horrible, derogatory remarks about her son (along the lines of, "he's a raving, murderous lunatic!") while feeding him liberal doses of a medicine that worsens his condition. The reason she does this is because the house is entailed to John, leaving Mrs. Cosway and her daughters with practically nothing to live on. Mrs. Cosway is outwardly the most dislikeable character in this book, but equally awful is her daughter Winnifred, engaged to the village rector while secretly carrying on an affair with the man her sister is in love with.

More and more secrets are brought to the surface, and John continues to lock himself in the bathroom, clutching the one item in the house that has any meaning to him: the beautiful Roman vase that stands in the living room. This vase becomes important to the story line. As in her other novels, who committed the murder is not as important as why it was done. In all, I thought this was an excellent book, reminiscent of The House of Stairs. The only thing I have to complain about is that Vine keeps reminding us that it was the sixties (i.e., "it was the sixties; there was no Internet then). Otherwise, The Minotaur was yet another fascinating, intriguing novel by one of the best mystery authors today.

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