A Sight for Sore Eyes (Ruth Rendell)

By Ruth Rendell

First published: UK, Hutchinson, 1998; US, Crown

4 stars

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

– Philip Larkin

Rendell - Sight for Sore Eyes.jpg

Working-class Teddy Brex’s parents neglect him – and produce a psychopath, who prefers objects to people.

Middle-class Francine Hill’s mother was murdered, and her stepmother Julia is insanely over-protective.  (“Insanely”, in Rendell, is not an exaggeration.)

She’s not happy, then, when Francine and Teddy fall in love (or a reasonable facsimile.)

And Harriet Oxenholme – once a rock musician’s groupie, now unhappily married – seduces working-class youths.  She has her eye on Teddy, but he’s more interested in the house.

This is Rendell – and we expect a catastrophe.

This time, there’s something like a happy ending (or not too unhappy a one).


For a Socialist, Rendell writes of the working class with disdain.  They’re hardly likely to lead the revolution.  (Are there any positive depictions in her books?)

The description in Ch. 6 of the Brexes’ house is rancid, like Swift’s ” Dressing-Room”.

An old Mason-Pearson hairbrush, its stiff black bristles clogged with Eileen’s equally wiry but greying hair, a scent bottle in which the perfume had grown yellow and viscid with age, a comb whose teeth were gummed together with dark-grey grease, a cardboard box that had once held Terry’s All Gold chocolates, a glass ashtray containing pins, hairgrips, scraps of cottonwool, a dead fly, the top of a ballpoint pen and, horribly, a piece of broken fingernail.  And all this sitting on a greyed and stained crocheted lace mat, rumpled in the middle and curled at its fringed edges, like an island in a dusty sea after a nuclear explosion.

Teddy’s family is a more adult version of the Wormwoods in Roald Dahl’s Matilda.  

Teddy’s pregnant mother guzzled on “croissants with butter, whipped-cream doughnuts, salami, streaky bacon, fried eggs, chocolate bars, sausages and chips with everything.  She had smoked about ten thousand eight hundred cigarettes and drunk many gallons of Guinness, cider, Babycham and sweet sherry.”

When Teddy’s born – without any physical defects – his parents neglect him.

There was always abundant food in the house and large meals of the TV-dinner and chip-shop variety were served, so Teddy was amply fed.  The television was always on, so there was something to look at.  No one ever cuddled him or played with him or talked to him…

Neglected he might be, though he always had enough to eat and no one ever hit him, but he had no craving for affection.  He had never received any, he didn’t know what it was.  That may have been the reason or he might have been born that way.  He was quite self-sufficient.


Incapable of love, and impotent (except when talking about murder), Teddy’s attraction to Francine is aesthetic.  He wants to turn her into a Klimt painting, to adorn her naked body with feathers and jewels – to turn her into an objet d’art.

Francine’s personality, her tastes and interests, are of no interest.  She is to him “a thing of perfect beauty, an icon, an ornament to be adored, but [not] a real and very young woman”.

(Robert Barnard wrote a story based on “My Last Duchess”.   Didn’t somebody turn “Porphyria’s Lover” into a story?  Was it Rendell?)

“Others imprisoned her and so would be, only he had the most right.  She was his to do as he liked with.”

She will, he demands, exist only for him, without any other personal ties.  “You don’t have to see any of them again, not your father or your friends or anyone.  You belong to me.”

Possessive, psychopath, and multiple murderer though he is, Teddy is, in many ways, a victim of his neglectful upbringing.

Those old feelings of hurt rose up in him now.  They had lain there for years, slumbered there, an ancient sore, which Francine’s defection awakened.  In Francine’s broken promise, her failure to come, he felt anew all the pain of his mother’s refusal to care for him, talk to him, touch him.

He is is far more sympathetic than Julia, who wants to “protect” Francine.  Her efforts try to leave Francine incapable of interacting with the world, without a normal adolescent’s life.

Francine, like the similarly isolated Liza in The Crocodile Bird, survives.  There’s hope that she will find her place in the world.

It’s quite Jungian: a woman’s journey towards individuation, becoming independent from her (step-)parents and lover, and adjusting to the world.

Folkloric (archetypal) elements appear, as in other late Rendells: a wicked stepmother; a mirror; a witch who locks up a young woman, and the “prince” who rescues her.  Francine compares herself to Cinderella.


Damaged children grow up in different ways.  Some can shuffle off the horrors of the past, others perhaps cannot change who they are, or will never know how.  Teddy Brex became a handsome young man.  Francine was beautiful.  But it was death that brought them together…


Kirkus (15 January 1999)

Rendell’s 46th (Road Rage, 1997, etc.) is a modern-day fairy tale — Margaret Yorke meets Fay Weldon — that shows the dark side of lovers’ reckless pursuit of their objects of beauty.  In long-ago happier days, Harriet Oxenholme was the lover of rock star Marc Syre.  (In the novel’s opening scene, their love is being immortalized in a famous painting; the next time we see them, two years and many pages later, he’s throwing her bodily out of his house.)  Now, faded and florid, she’s reduced to searching the adverts for workmen who can come to her lovely house to fill the hours left empty by her loveless marriage.  Beautiful woodworker Teddy Brex seems perfect for the role of her next lover.  But Teddy, an unloved child whose scary lack of nurturing has led him to prize beautiful things above people, is less interested in Harriet than in her house — or in Francine Hill, a fairy princess with a secret that, if he only knew it, makes her perfect for Teddy’s frighteningly abrupt style of courtship: as a child of six, she saw her mother open the door to the man who shot her to death and then came upstairs to Francine’s hiding place.  Surviving both that nightmare and the six months of muteness that followed, Francine has grown up under the pathologically controlling eye of her wicked stepmother Julia.  Once she’s set up her constellation of users and beautiful objects and shown how Harriet and Teddy can fulfill both functions at once, Rendell focuses on the doomed romance of murderous Teddy and haunted Francine with all the loving attention of a watchmaker regarding a ticking bomb.  If the result lacks the energy and inevitability of the classic A Judgment in Stone, Rendell supplies a Dickensian wealth of social detail that brings her beautiful people and their predators to startling life.

New York Times (Marilyn Stasio, 4 April 1999)

Perfect beauty takes many blinding guises in A Sight for Sore Eyes, a suspense novel by Ruth Rendell that is itself a flawless piece of craftsmanship.  But to the tormented characters who obsessively pursue their objects of desire – including a redheaded woman, a mint-condition Edsel and the reflection of the beholder’s own face in the mirror – the worship of beauty leads directly to murder and madness.

Rendell charts a harrowing collision course for two preternaturally beautiful teenagers: Teddy Brex, an unloved child who grows up to be a sociopath, and Francine Hill, an overprotected child who grows up to be his ideal victim.  Life has taught Teddy that people are ugly and unkind; but since ”looking at beauty took away pain and hurt,” no deed committed to acquire that beauty is too cruel or too crazy.  Teddy may be twisted, but in the author’s bold, imaginative view he is sympathetic.

Reaching back a generation to get more traction for her macabre love story, Rendell takes a ruthless probe to every person (from Teddy’s emotionally arrested parents to the faceless stranger who murdered Francine’s mother) who had a hand in shaping the psyches of this ill-met pair.  Spare and unforgiving, these incisive character studies illuminate the darker corners of Teddy’s and Francine’s family histories without dimming the originality of their bizarre lives.

6 thoughts on “A Sight for Sore Eyes (Ruth Rendell)

  1. I admit, I’m somewhat surprised you like this author. Rendell has always come off to me as an author with very interesting blurbs and plot summaries but not someone I’d read. I read a few of your reviews on the old site but can’t recall what you liked!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve read 40-odd Rendells (bit over half her books).

      Her short stories are stunning. I’d compare them to Christie and Dahl at their twistiest, Get hold of the Collected Short Stories (has The Fallen Curtain, The Fever Tree, Means of Evil, and The New Girl Friend), and read your way through.

      The Wexford books are good, solid police mysteries, with a psychological angle; Wolf to the Slaughter, A Sleeping Life, Put On by Cunning, An Unkindness of Ravens, and Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter (maybe the best) are all clever. Simisola is ambitious, but the moralising is heavy-handed.

      One never quite knows what her psychological suspense novels will be like. Several, let’s be honest, are too grim or weird for me to enjoy: A Demon in My View (protagonist is a psychopath), The Killing Doll, Live Flesh (protagonist is a rapist), and Talking to Strange Men. Many others are brilliant: The Face of Trespass and The Lake of Darkness are early, tightly constructed, and ironic; A Judgement in Stone, generally seen as her masterpiece, is compelling; and The Crocodile Bird is one of her warmest books: a beautifully written coming-of-age novel about a young woman’s relationship with her murderous mother.

      I’ve read a couple of the Barbara Vines, but not enough to comment. I liked The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, though.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Well, Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter did sound interesting…

        Noted on the short stories! I confess I’ve thought Christie’s short non-series stories had better hooks than resolutions, but I’ll give these a try someday.

        As for suspense, I might give those a pass. I enjoy something resembling a happy ending and they don’t seem like my cup of tea. I’m somewhat cynical on them; I have no doubt that Rendell can write well-realized crazy people, but I almost feel like it’s cheating to shove them all into a novel. More interesting to write normal people pushed to the brink, I would think. But again, haven’t read them so I’m probably completely off-base!


        On an unrelated note, I finished The Ginza Ghost last month or so. You were right, dry as a bone, but I still enjoyed it. I think I was somewhat sabotaged, I thought they would all be as good as “The Cold Night’s Clearing” but only “The Demon in the Mine” came close. Maybe “The Guardian of the Lighthouse.”


      2. Try those Wexfords and the short stories. Them at least I think you’d enjoy.

        Not all of Rendell’s protagonists are crazy; some are innocents caught up in crime, or Ilesian murderers.


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