About 150 pages in, I thought, Where in the hell is this going?
About 3/4 of the way through, things started to coalesce. By the time I was done, I was just... bored. I realize that all around me people are living tiny, dull, sometimes repulsive lives, but I don't understand Ms. Rendell's decision to populate this book with some of the most unpleasant people I've ever "met" in the pages of a book.
Peter ("Pup") and Doreen ("Dolly") live with their parents in what was their grandparents' home, a large but poorly maintained house in London. At the outset, Pup is 15 and Dolly is around 20, still living at home and, due to the benighted attitudes of her parents, condemned never to marry or hold a job outside the home because of her "disfigurement" - which, as far as I could discern, is simply a large facial birthmark. Dolly believes that anyone who sees her is disgusted by this mark (and she is correct, in some instances) and mostly stays indoors, having virtually no real human contact other than her family and a few neighbors. She and her mother Edith earn some income as seamstresses, making clothing and doing alterations in their home, and after Edith's death early in the book Dolly continues sporadically in the trade.
Pup becomes fascinated with the study of the occult and appropriates use of a room in the house's unused third floor for his temple. Dolly is intrigued by his studies, being herself peripherally involved in the spiritualist activities of a neighbor. Over the next six years, Pup exhausts his interest in magic, except to use it as an excuse to be gone from the house in the evenings, but Dolly increasingly sees her younger brother as some sort of adept, believing that he has magical powers and can (among other things) bring success to their apathetic father Harold, who spends his free time with his nose buried in an endless succession of histories and historical novels, contributing virtually nothing to family life. Eventually, as Dolly becomes an alcoholic and more unhinged by the week, she perceives Pup's supposed magical abilities as the means to take action against anyone who threatens their insular little world - especially when the neighbor's 30-something year old daughter Myra contrives to become the widowed Harold's second wife, and banishes Pup and Dolly to the third floor.
Simultaneously, a mentally ill young Irishman comes to live nearby, and although his path nearly crosses with that of Dolly and Pup several times, they will not meet until the very end of the book. (This is one aspect of the book I particularly don't "get": the Irishman serves virtually no purpose except as a bogeyman, which could have been accomplished just as easily - and I think would have been much more effective - with a faceless No Man. It didn't move the story forward at all, rambling around in this guy's head.)
Dolly is pathetic; Pup is a complete opportunist and womanizer; Myra is a gold-digger (albeit with ridiculously low standards); Harold is an oblivious lump; the spiritualists are a bunch of credulous ninnies. On the whole, a thoroughly loathsome cast of characters.