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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The title, Gallowglass, the fourth Barbara Vine novel, comes out of a violent tradition in Celtic history: A "Gallowglass" was a chieftain's bodyguard, sworn to stand constantly at his master's right hand, ready to taste food and drink and hurl himself in front of hostile spears or battle axes. Although Vine sets her story in contemporary England, society is scarcely less violent today than in the time of the druids, allowing her to focus on the modern phenomenon of kidnapping for ransom. Her dual protagonists, who alternately narrate the novel, are two "Gallowglasses" whose fates converge on the figure of a "Princess," a lovely ex-model now married to a wealthy British businessman.

Joe, who speaks first, illustrates Vine's interest in the social misfits for whom Britain's National Health Service offers too little help too late. Raised by uncaring foster parents and ejected from a psychiatric ward by governmental cuts in welfare spending long before his depression is even alleviated, Joe comes close to throwing himself under an express train. He is rescued in the nick of time by Sandor, an enigmatic sadistic stranger with whom he falls into a selfless asexual love. Joe willingly becomes Sandor's Gallowglass, at his side each step of the tortuous way that Sandor plots to kidnap Nina Apsoland.

Joe's opposite is Paul Garnet, hired by Apsoland to guard his wife. Garnet is as normal as Joe is skewed. After Garnet's wife left him, he accepted Apsoland's offer so that he could raise the daughter he loved. But by falling in love with Nina Apsoland, Garnet opens a chink in the cordon of security he is supposed to be maintaining, endangering both Nina and his daughter Jessica.

The entangled lives Vine portrays as meeting in pursuit and defense of Nina Apsoland allow her to explore various faces of love. By Ruth Rendell's theory of creating sympathetic figures for her novels, Joe's dogged, hopeless attachment to Sandor should make him acceptable to readers, if not wholly palatable. Garnet, on the other hand, falls in love with love, a physical passion for a beautiful woman blinding him to his duty and even to his concern for his child. Once Garnet's daughter becomes a lever in the kidnap scheme, he abruptly falls out of love with Nina: she had done "too much" for him, he told her, in offering to give herself up to the kidnappers' in place of Jessica, and that meant death to their relationship.