The Tree of Hands by Ruth Rendell: review

Moral dilemmas abound in this tale of class, obsession and how people can justify the appalling actions of someone they love.

Questioning your own moral judgments

Ruth Rendell's Tree of Hands

This book gripped me from the start, but it didn’t go where I’d expected and it wasn’t the crime novel I’d expected, either. I’ve only read a few of Ruth Rendell’s books and every one I’ve read has had the same effect: unputdownable. The way Rendell incorporated the psychological sides of crimes, big and workaday, is sublime and, certainly within this novel, it will leave you questioning your own moral judgments. You’ll find yourself sympathising with criminal behaviour, wondering if – just in this one case – it might be justified, rooting for someone to get away with something truly criminal (until you think it through) and being on the side of someone who is spying on his girlfriend and perhaps turning into someone who could have carried out a crime passionel.

The first protagonist, Benet, is an author, giving Ruth Rendell the opportunity to comment on writers and how they relate to other people. When her mother suggests letting her work while she reads. “Benet shook her head. The peculiar conditions necessary for writing – some measure of solitude, a contemplative atmosphere, a certain preparation of the mind – she felt unable to explain to anyone not involved in the process.” (p.16)

When a doctor comments on her book, that makes her happier than if he had been interested in her as a woman. “It was somehow as gratifying as getting her first good review had been.” (p.44)

The tree of hands, motherhood and a ruby ring

First sentence: “Once, when Benet was about fourteen, they had been in a train together, alone in the carriage, and Mopsa had tried to stab her with a carving knife.”

The title, the cover and the first sentence initially put me on the wrong foot here. The first tree of hands is one that the protagonist at the beginning, Benet, sees at a hospital, with paper hands decorated by the children instead of leaves. Initially she finds it macabre, perhaps because of her state of mind at that point. However, it seems rather bizarre for her to later paint a similar tree of hands on Jay’s nursery wall. Nevertheless, the tree plays a minor role in the plot, so I wonder why it was chosen as the title. It did occur to me that the title would have made more sense if Benet’s novel had been called The Tree of Hands; I wonder if Ruth Rendell considered that idea. Tied in with this is the image on the cover of my edition of an elegant woman’s hand wearing a ruby ring, dripping blood, so we’re set up to expect murder, but that really isn’t what the plot is about; the ruby ring is a minor detail.

Talking of minor details: looking at my own hand, I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to manoevre a hand into the position shown in that image!

Perhaps the first sentence, referring to Benet having being attacked by her mother as a teenager, is more relevant to how the adult Benet eventually behaves than I first realised while reading. Although the relationship between the two women is explored in the first half of the book, its effects on Benet seem underdeveloped in relation to things that happen later. At one point, Benet reads about the effect child abuse has on its victims. Ruth Rendell never expands on this, yet it does seem one of the things Benet might have grasped as a justification for her actions, acting as a rescuer for another victim. Or maybe it was the reason she became so independent, thus casting herself off from real friendship and closeness with other adults whose advice and confidence she might have sought.

What’s in a name?

There was one theme running through the book that intrigues me but wasn’t specifically mentioned: the influence of changing your name. Benet chose her name herself, distancing herself from her childhood name of Brigitte (after Bardot). This is also tied in with the fact that she had gone up in the world after the success of her novel so that she was able to move away from the rough part of London she lived in before her success and move to the well-off area of Hampstead. I have a pet theory that changing your name can change your personality or, at least, it can make you feel a different person. If this happens in childhood, it is can make you feel split; not to the extent of schizophrenia, but off-balance. Maybe the arrival of her mother, who insists on calling her Brigitte, throws Benet back into more childish thought patterns. The theme of names is also an issue for the child in the story.

Snobbery, stereotypes, assumptions

Apparently Ruth Rendell was known for her depictions of class differences. In The Tree of Hands, there is a contrast between the middle class Benet and the working class characters such as Carol, Barry and Terry. Benet is snobbish in her expectations about Carol and Barry and hence her ideas about how they treat their son, her expectations of neglect, even before she had evidence. Incidentally, we never have any proof that it was Carol who hurt him; it could just as easily have been any number of people who were roped in to babysit. Benign neglect is not the same as harm. Benet is also prejudiced against Jason simply because she considers him ugly, which is hardly his fault. She only seems to develop an interest in him when he shows some talent for drawing and is surprised that a child of his background should be gifted or intelligent. I did find that rather grating.

Another odd detail that surprised me was the prevalence of cooked lunch. There are several mentions of soup and beans on toast and the like and nary a mention of sandwiches, which would have been far more likely in the 1980s, even for people who were at home at lunchtime. Perhaps I’m showing the class I grew up in? Or maybe it was just what Ruth Rendell was used to.

Attitudes to single mothers in the 1980s

This novel was written in the 1980s and that is reflected in how women are portrayed. Marriage is still the norm, living together is frowned upon and having a child out of wedlock is still somewhat scandalous. Edward is peeved that Benet won’t marry him and accuses her of using him to get pregnant though I had the feeling she didn’t originally intend it that way; however, by letting him believe that, she could end the relationship first time round and he could tell himself it was her fault not his that the relationship failed.

The men are almost all really weak and morally corrupt. Barry is a fool for love, obsessive and paranoid. Terry is using women to fund his expensive tastes, then taking revenge, then starts to become paranoid as he fears being caught. Edward only wants Benet when he’s down on his luck, when his thoughts turn to blackmail.

Motherlove: it’s complicated

Benet’s dilemma when she finds out what her mother has done should have been straightforward, but by trying to protect her mother, she loses all sense of reason. Why is she so keen to protect her? Embarrassment; as a famous novelist, she doesn’t want the notoriety. Her judgment is obviously clouded by her own state of mind at the time. Nevertheless, her initial reaction is horror. She has repeated opportunities to come clean, but, like a lying child, keeps on rationalising the deception. The feeling of anger at her mother for putting her in that situation should have been enough to guide her decision. The child’s obvious desperation to get back to his own mother when he sees her on the television should have told her she needed to take him back, whatever her reservations about how he had been treated by his family.


Benet: unable to commit to adult relationships

Mother: unstable, self-obsessed

Carol: an unfit mother, an unfaithful partner

Barry: drew the short straw, becoming obsessed with a woman who was a born liar, a thief and utterly unfaithful. Caring, hardworking. He is the only one who seemed to actually miss the kidnapped boy. He’s not all good, though; his love is physical, turning into obsession and more or less becoming a stalker. Maybe he’ll be able to make a new, normal life for himself now he’s free of Carol.

Terry: out for what he can get, conman for love, loveable inept criminal. I was rooting for him, but only in the context of fiction; in real life I would definitely disapprove. Did his Caribbean-bound lover get what she deserved? Possibly, just for her taste in decor!

Truth is stranger than fiction

The dedication at the front of the book is “For Francesca, my godchild, with love.” This is Francesca Witt, who was left £ 300,000 in Ruth Rendell’s will  and thanked her in a tweet:

Bizarrely, in an incident that her godmother could have written herself, Francesca Witt found a machete under the floorboards in her house. When she phoned the police, they told her to dispose of it herself, but after she contacted the local press, the police decided to collect it after all.