Barbara Vine, Asta’s Book (1993; US title: Anna’s Book)

Mr. Smithereens was enthralled by this book, and I love both Vine and Rendell’s novels, yet I have mixed feelings about this one. When Ruth Rendell writes as Barbara Vine, she doesn’t write police investigations. Those novels are usually more complex and delve into psychology, like The Blood Doctor (my personal favourite), The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, or A Fatal Inversion. Crime remains present, but it’s rather a transgression of law or of the common moral code, that will not necessarily be found out and punished in a legal way, but will certainly have a long-term impact.

For all those who love psychological mysteries, this is a great story, one with memorable, deeply believable characters, complex plot and twists that will make you gasp at the end. The story spans over 3 generations, from the grandmother Asta, a Danish woman settling down in London with her family in 1905 to her granddaughter Ann, the narrator, who deals with her legacy.

The third pivotal character is Swanny, Asta’s daughter and Ann’s aunt: she receives an anonymous letter disclosing that she might not be Asta’s daughter, and the latter whimsically doesn’t confirm or refute it. Swanny keeps looking for clues, and in her quest, discovers her mother’s diaries right after her death. Swanny translates, publishes them and they turn out a worldwide bestseller: those originally are “Asta’s Book”. Vine literally writes a book within the book, as chapters of Ann’s narration alternate with large excerpts of Asta’s diaries. When in turns Ann inherits the diaries after Swanny’s death, another plot, more procedural, emerges: in the earliest diary, her grandmother mentioned a crime that happened in the neighbourhood and Ann has to revisit the diaries for clues.

As you see, the plot is thick and has a rich cast of great characters, but it might just be too much. I even thought there might be enough for 2 books, even though the 2 plots are suitably linked. While I was reading it, I kept trying to imagine a different book with the same characters, as if they were cards in my hand that I could shuffle and play in another way. At times, the plot felt forced and there was a bit too much of a coincidence at the end, like a rush to tie all loose ends.

But it’s also a problem of pace: things only picked up at about page 200 (over a total of 400+), when the second mystery steps in. So I had ample time to let my mind wander and nitpick. My major problem is that I didn’t really buy one key element of the plot: that Asta’s diaries were so mesmerizing that it would become a bestseller. They provide a medium to paint the circumstances and hear the “candid” voice of a long-dead character. Besides, Vine needs it to explain how strangers get interested in the family history and how people are willing to open their drawers to find clues long after the protagonists are dead. But would a diary by such a dry writer be a success? We are strongly aware of the missing parts in Asta’s narration, so I didn’t find her diary candid or heartfelt. I don’t find Asta very likable, particularly as a mother, and indeed she’s not supposed to be, but in my opinion that would impede her book’s success.

[Beware SPOILER alert] I was intrigued by the parallel theme of motherhood in 2 novels by Vine that I recently read: Asta’s Book and A Fatal Inversion. In my mind, they echo each other with Zosie and Asta, 2 main characters living motherhood in a traumatic way, so much that they steal a child who isn’t biologically theirs after the disappearance of their own. The fact that the child is the result of a theft is so suppressed that both deny it, fail to see it as a crime, even in keeping a private diary, up to the point of forgetting the truth. The psychoanalytic vision has Swanny suffer from identity loss as a result of her mother’s suppressed subconscious. These aspects of the story make the book quite powerful in spite of my reservations.

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