The Tree of Hands
by Ruth Rendell
The buzz in the choir room after the sermon was shock--a pastor had publicly professed his fascination with the HBO network’s gritty and gory True Detective series. A soprano who admitted she’d taped the episodes defended her own choice. Wasn’t the answer obvious? It’s good versus evil, sometimes as hopelessly entwined as wheat and tares, as in Ruth Rendell’s 1984 The Tree of Hands.
Because in Rendell’s writing, who is good? And who is evil? In Rendell’s world, there are no heroes. The best we can hope for are people who do the wrong things for the right reasons. And whose actions save, or destroy, others they don’t even know.
I originally was a fan of Rendell’s police procedurals. It was my then teenaged daughter who persuaded me, decades ago, to go to the darker side of Rendell’s works. Darker than murder? What’s darker than the secrets of the human heart? Especially when delineated by the woman who has been a life peer since 1996 as the Baroness Rendell of Banbergh.
“Because I am the last person to whom I would tell a secret,” Rendell once said, “people tell me their secrets.”
In The Tree of Hands, the secrets entangle two unwed mothers. Carol Stratford has already relinquished custody of two unwanted children, and is on the way to killing a third, baby Jason, with abuse and neglect. In a nearby neighborhood, bestselling author Benet Archdale struggles to reconcile her schizophrenic mother Mopsa to the reality of her beloved young son James, whose birth Benet plotted along with her novel.
Mopsa, retired to Spain with Benet’s father, has returned to England for psychiatric tests. During her stay, James becomes ill with a childhood disease which turns unexpectedly deadly. The playroom of the hospital where he is admitted is decorated by “a piece of bizarre, the brainchild evidently of someone with a B.Ed.” a collage which Benet dubs a “tree of hands.”
“On the white paper base sheet had been drawn a tree with a straight brown trunk. . . And all over the tree, on the branches, nestling among the twigs, protruding like fungus from the trunk, were paper hands.” The tree will become the symbol to Benet of James’s illness, death, and unlikely resurrection, as insane Mopsa steals a substitute child in an attempt to ease her daughter’s grief for James.
The abducted child’s physical resemblance to the dead boy, his name (the toddler calls himself “Jay”) and the history of abuse written in the scars and bruises on his small body conspire to reconcile Benet to the bizarre substitution.
Clearly, Jason will be endangered if he is returned to his “real” mother. But will Carol agree to give him up? Will an innocent man be arrested for Jason’s kidnapping, even for his murder? Will Benet be able to convince everyone around her that Jay is, in fact, her child? And will Jay’s knowledge of his real parentage, soon to be hidden in the unconscious mind of a toddler, return to haunt him?
Rendell will answer some questions. On others, she is silent, leaving us, the readers,
haunted as well.
For more about Rendell, her life and works, I liked Andrew Wilson’s March 10, 2013, profile, “Open and shut case: Is Ruth Rendell finally ready to open up about her puzzling personal life?” at www.independent.co.uk/.
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics begins an April of mysteries with Crocodile on the Sandbank, by the late Barbara Mertz, writing as Elizabeth Peters.)