Portobello by Ruth Rendell: A Book Review

Portobello is one of Ruth Rendell’s psychological studies of obsessional and eccentric characters, with a touch of insanity and crime mixed in. I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ it as in parts it really irritated me, but I did wonder how it was going to end and so read on. The setting is good; the description of the Portobello Road in London brings the area to life, making it a character in its own right:

The street is very long, like a centipede snaking up from Pembridge Road in the south to Kensal Town in the north, its legs splaying out all the way and almost reaching the Great Western Street main line and the Grand Union Canal.

… The Portobello has a rich personality, vibrant, brilliant in colour, noisy with graffiti that approach art, bizarre and splendid. an indefinable edge to it adds a spice of danger. There is nothing safe about the Portobello, nothing suburban. It is as far from an average shopping street as can be imagined. those who love and those who barely know it have called it the world’s finest street. (page 2)

The plot promised to be good, with Eugene Wren finding an envelope filled with money and sets in motion a chain of disastrous events. But it failed to live up to that promise. The money belonged to Joel, a very strange young man who after being attacked in the Portobello Road and losing the envelope, suffered a heart attack and a near-death experience in which he went through a tunnel and was then brought back.  Joel is accompanied by Mithras who came back with him through the tunnel. He descends rapidly into an unreal world shunning the light and doing nothing at all.

Eugene is a secretive man who owns a Fine Art Gallery and is engaged to Ella Cotswold, a doctor. Ella takes on Joel as a private patient even though it’s clear his problems are psychological rather than physical and even when she refers him to a psychotherapist he continues to consult her.

Eugene in an attempt to lose weight and give up smoking tries eating low-calorie sweets and becomes addicted to Chocorange, a sugar-free pastille containing just 4 calories. This is one of the parts of the book that irritated me – it is repeated ad nauseam  how he wants to give up, tries to and fails, how he hides packets everywhere.

A third set of characters are Lance Platt, a petty burglar (who told Eugene the money belonged to him) and his Uncle Gib. Lance Uncle Gib is a reformed burglar, now an Elder in the Church of the Children of Zebulon, who only puts up with Lance living in his house for the rent money. Uncle Gib is another unpleasant character:

… a tall, emaciated old man with his Voltairean face and his fluffy white hair singing hymns as he bounded along. Eccentricity is the norm in the Portobello Road. (page 134)

It’s descriptions like that, that kept me reading this book, for Rendell is expert in depicting sad and seedy individuals, the mentally ill, and obsessed and strangely addicted characters. I wasn’t impressed with the way she tied up all the loose ends; it seemed too sentimental and not in keeping with the rest of the book. Overall and having thought about since finishing it I think that the prose drags the book up beyond the two stars (meaning it was ok) I gave it on Goodreads, so if I could I’d upgrade that to two and half  – I nearly liked it! 🙂

I’d identified this as a book to read for Carl’s RIP IV Challenge but I’m not sure it fits, although there is some suspense in it and a touch of dark fantasy.

Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Arrow (13 Aug 2009)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0099538636
ISBN-13: 978-0099538639
Source: I bought it (in a 3 for 2 in Waterstones)

6 thoughts on “Portobello by Ruth Rendell: A Book Review

  1. Kailana and Rhapsodyin books:

    Let me add immediately that I have read and absolutely loved so many of her novels over the years that I still consider Rendell and P.D. James among the very best British crime writers. But Rendell has written crime fiction since 1964, and she is now in her seventies, so I am ready to forgive a less-than-perfect novel once in a while 🙂


  2. I’ve got a bit of a blind spot over Ruth Rendell – I know she’s good and I used to like Wexford, but her psychological novels always end up irritating me. Perhaps it’s because she’s good at portraying people you really don’t like, and I need to find someone to feel sympathetic towards in a novel, or at least to admire. I quite accept that it’s a deficiency in me, she’s a highly respected author, after all. But I shan’t read this one.


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