Sunday, 19 January 2020

Son of Rosemary by Ira Levin

I am only now beginning to give Ira Levin's late novels the credit they're due. 

One reason it's taken a while is because by this time Levin was such a consummate master of his craft. 

His books are so beautifully and smoothly constructed, and make for such effortless reading, that there's a danger of underestimating their brilliance.

Published in 1997, Son of Rosemary is the final novel Ira Levin wrote — it's a great shame that he only ever gave us seven. 
 
(I should say at this point that if you haven't read Rosemary's Baby you should go away and do that before continuing here — this post is full of spoilers.)

Son of Rosemary is similar to Levin's penultimate novel Sliver (1991) in its focus on an older woman's involvement with a dangerously charming — and possibly just plain dangerous — younger man.

Except in this case the older woman is Rosemary from Rosemary's Baby and the young man is her demonic son, now grown to manhood.

It's a short novel but it moves with a headlong velocity, starting with a brief passage in the present tense as a satanist dentist (yes, one of those) is killed — squished by a runaway taxi. 

At that instant, and still on the first page of the novel, we cut to Rosemary awakening from a coma in a long-term care hospital. 

She has been released from a spell she was put under by the coven who engineered the conspiracy that ended with her becoming Satan's babymother.

The (fantastic and hilarious) ending of the first novel featured Rosemary coming to terms with this situation and turning into a doting mother of Andy, the devil's spawn.

But the coven wanted her out of the way so they make sure the boy grew up evil. Hence the coma... which she has been in for 27 years.

This makes for a fantastically arresting and ingenious beginning for the sequel, with Rosemary's dawning horror as she realises how long she's been asleep. 
 
It's all beautifully and succinctly conveyed as Rosemary discovers that Andy has become a "charismatic leader and a great communicator." 

Indeed, he's founded a kind of world religion. Andy seems kindly, compassionate, a bringer of peace...

Which causes Rosemary to reflect that, "Either she'd done a really super job of mothering during Andy's early years — or the coven had found a really super disguise for the son of Satan."

As the ferociously slick and streamlined story progresses, Andy reveals that he is not a good guy — and to her credit, Rosemary has been sceptical all along.
 
The suspense, and the horror, grow until we reach the final sequence, Chapter 18 — or "6+6+6" as it is headed in the book — where the devil himself makes an appearance, sitting with his feet up and "eating caviar out of a pound tin with a spoon."
 
The book is beautifully, economically, vividly written even its smallest details. Here's the description of champagne being poured into a glass: "the foam fizzed down into pale gold wine."

And there's a wonderfully evocative sequence of Rosemary and Andy walking abroad in a snowbound New York without an entourage or bodyguards — like John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

This is a habit which of course proved tragically fatal for Lennon, and there's a scene in the book where Rosemary visits Lennon's memorial garden in Central Park — although I had no idea this is what it was until I read an explanation online.

This is an example of Ira Levin leaving things unexplained because he wants the reader to do some work. He also includes a puzzle that runs throughout the book.

This is a brain-breaker of an anagram: take "roast mules" and turn it into a common ten letter word that even children use.

I have to confess that I couldn't crack it. I ended up using the computer, and then kicked myself. I'd urge you to try and solve it without cheating...

The solution proves to be a brilliant metaphor for the dizzying ending of this unstoppably fabulous book.

(Image credits: a good selection of covers, some of them breathtakingly irrelevant, from Good Reads.)

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