Sunday, 17 June 2012

Review: Rosemary's Baby

My boyfriend and I are just about to start looking for a flat together. One of the things we have to decide is whether we go for a new build or an older house, and after finishing Rosemary's Baby, I believe I have the answer, which is NEW BUILD NEW BUILD FOR THE LOVE OF GOD NEW BUILD.

In a new build we have a chance of getting a kitchen with drawers that actually close and have backs to them, and in an older house we have a chance of becoming mixed up with a Satanic cult that wants to use my body as the receptacle for the Devil's seed. That, essentially is the plot of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby: man and woman move into creepy old building, there are witches, woman ends up knocked up with Lucifer's very special offspring. Oops.

The whole thing is narrated by sweet, slightly derpy victim Rosemary, who has absolutely no idea why her neighbours lend her black candles and why she's suddenly craving the raw heart of a chicken. Let's be honest, though, it's not hard for the average reader to get wise to what's really going on. I may have been affected by the fact that I've already seen - and loved - the movie (if you've seen the movie, by the way, the book is exactly the same), but even absolute beginners with basic brain function engaged will be able to make the leap.

That's not to say that I'm entirely skeptical about Rosemary's lack of understanding. Levin's great at emphasising just how easy it is to get sucked into a situation that seems, from the outside, totally crazy. Rosemary's quite a bit younger than her husband, and younger again than the witches in her building's coven, making her automatically feel as though she should defer to them; everyone seems very friendly and attentive, making it difficult for her to reject their help; and if it's your own life, it's actually quite hard to believe that everyone you know is actively working to destroy you.

It doesn't help, of course, that Rosemary is a young woman in the 1960s, and thus culturally conditioned to expect about as much attention and respect as is given to the average twenty-first century dog. My friend Amy tells me that I read too many books in which women are downtrodden. I think the problem may be more with 99% of history rather than my taste in reading material, but nonetheless: Amy, this is not the book for you. Levin actually goes pretty light on Rosemary's day-to-day housewifely oppression - apart from a charming episode when her husband Guy wakes her up when she's deathly hung over because he wants his breakfast, she seems pretty in control of her life - so when the full impact of her essential powerlessness is revealed towards the end of the book it hits you like a train.

And when you've finished making me my sandwich you can bring me the Antichrist
But all the same, what surprised me about Rosemary's Baby was how possible it still feels. It struck me, as I was reading, how much my situation is the early twenty-first century analogue of Rosemary's. Transplant me back to the 1960s and my boyfriend would become my husband, my MA would become Rosemary's pottery class and at 24, the age that she and I share, I would be thinking less about jobs and more about the colour of the curtains in the nursery. And it doesn't even need to be set in the 1960s. If that new flat of mine turned out to have lots of friendly older neighbours, and if my boyfriend started hanging out with them a lot and making me feel obliged to as well, and if those friendly neighbours were on the lookout for a young lady of a female disposition and went to my boyfriend with a business proposal ... couldn't Rosemary's story happen to me?

I mean, obviously not, for many reasons, but that's what Rosemary's Baby makes you wonder, and it's that insidious normality which makes its concept so terrifying. It's also - and oddly, this makes it even more scary - very funny. Levin's great at seeing the ridiculous aspects of the situation he's created. He's got a light, witty writing style which is both easy and fun to read (I finished Rosemary's Baby in about two hours), and the denouement, when it came, was so outrageously, blackly hilarious that it made me laugh out loud. I realise that Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman have absolutely read it, and suddenly Good Omens makes a lot more sense.

It's weird that Ira Levin's not a name that means anything to most of us. His brain-children (he's also the guy who wrote The Stepford Wives) have cultural lives that run and run, but their author himself has vanished from our collective consciousness. It's a pity, because Rosemary's Baby is absolutely top-notch tongue-in-cheek horror, and its creator deserves to get remembered for it. If you have any kind of interest at all in weird fiction, or if you're just in the mood for a really black-hearted laugh, this is a book that you need to read.

4 stars.

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