Read Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine Free Online
Book Title: Asta’s Book|
The author of the book: Barbara Vine
Date of issue: May 26th 1994
ISBN 13: 9780140176612
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 17.29 MB
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Reader ratings: 4.2
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Did Ruth Rendell consider the novels she wrote under the pseudonym "Barbara Vine" to be her best work? I personally think this is more than likely. Much missed by her many fans since her death in 2015, Ruth Rendell was a very prolific and highly regarded crime writer, with over sixty books to her name. She won many awards and honours, and continued to craft novel after novel, even though she increasingly had other commitments. She regularly attended the House of Lords every day, for instance, stating firmly that if she were to be awarded the honour of CBE, (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) she intended to work for it rather than allowing it to be a sinecure. Yet, astonishingly, the stories kept coming; readable, dependable crime mysteries, even when she was in her 80's.
I have read many of Ruth Rendell's novels and short stories over the years, including some of the hugely popular Wexford series of twenty-four books. These are cosy mysteries, solid workaday reads, though some have more of an edge, and could be termed thrillers. Some stand-alone novels are extremely downbeat with an almost vicious element. She was adept at getting inside the mind of the perpetrator of a crime, later writing psychological murder novels rather than mysteries. She wrote about those who are socially isolated, or those afflicted by mental illness or anxiety problems. The novels show sharp insight, feel very realistic, and always convey a great sense of place, down to the smallest detail. If you happen to know the area where one of her books is set, you will not be able to fault her description; her novels are all meticulously researched.
But the novels she wrote as "Barbara Vine", which number fourteen in all, have something else. They have an extra quality, which - although I hesitate to use the word in case it seems judgemental about her main oeuvre by comparison - is more literary. The writing is lifted above the ordinary; the plots are more nuanced and complex. There is evidence of a formidable amount of solid historical research; not presented in a dry format, but spun into a compelling read. Often this is conveyed by a character in the present researching into their background. There is yet more depth in the exploration of character and relationships. Inevitably there is an element of mystery, and intrigue, or of story layered upon story, involving deep history or flashback; this is trademark Barbara Vine. Sometimes it is not clear whether there was a crime or not, and the suggestion often occurs late in the book, when the reader has become absorbed in the reality of the book's world, and perhaps even forgotten that it is genre fiction.
Asta's Book is no exception. Published in 1993, as the sixth "Barbara Vine" novel, it has a contemporary setting, with flashbacks to 1905 included. The eponymous "book" is the diary of the main character, Asta, used as a clever literary device. Reading the novel, one thus has a dual sense of another country, another and different culture, and another time as well as the present.
In the historically earlier parts of the tale, the 25-year old Asta Westerby and her two sons have moved to Hackney, in East London, from their home in Denmark. Asta has a husband, Rasmus, who does not seem to be in evidence, but is away on business. He also seems not to be greatly missed by Asta, although Asta is again expecting. Perhaps Asta is dissembling slightly when she claims never to have loved Rasmus. She now believes that he married her mostly for her dowry, writing,
"I suppose I should be thankful Rasmus isn't a Mahometan, otherwise I'm sure he'd be finding another wife ... to marry for 5,000 kroner."
Asta feels lonely and alienated in a culture and community she dislikes, feeling superior to many around her. Derisively she records,
"When I went out this morning a woman asked me if there were polar bears in the streets of Copenhagen."
Asta resents what she views as a small-minded and provincial community, and sees no need to adapt her ways. As a Danish women she wears her wedding ring on her right hand, even though the local people look askance at her, clearly suspecting she is an unmarried mother. Yet Asta is contemptuous of such ignorance, and too proud to do anything to clarify her position. Asta has no need of anyone else. She even treats her servant, Hansine, the closest she ever had to a friend, with contempt. Because Hansine is illiterate, Asta regards her as little better than a farm animal. Through her candidly disdainful attitude in her diaries, we see that Asta has no respect for Hansine, and also has a very cold and indifferent demeanour towards her two sons. Asta always prefers her own company, in her own house, with its Danish furniture and ornaments, and her books. Her own view of her life is often bleak,
"Hope is a horrible thing. I don't know why these church people call it a virtue, it is horrible because it's so often disappointed."
Asta is not a likeable character, but we are intrigued by her, through reading her diary which eventually is to cover 62 years. Asta's diary was never meant for others' eyes but we learn from the modern part of the book, that some of it had been discovered and translated. Her daughter, Swanhild (known as "Swanny") had arranged publication seventy years after the first diary had been written, and it then became an overnight sensation. It was a bestseller, achieving cult status as a fascinating domestic record of Edwardian times - and Swanny achieved star status herself, basking in the reflected glory. The diary had been kept up by Asta until 1967, although part of it was now missing; some of it had perhaps been destroyed by Asta herself, and not all of what existed had yet been translated.
In the present-day part of the novel, we meet the viewpoint character, Ann, a professional researcher, who is far more personable; rather shy and introverted. Swanny has also died, and Ann Eastbrook is her niece, and also Asta's granddaughter. To her great surprise she has inherited the diaries, and at the beginning of the story is not sure what to do with them.
Soon after the funeral for Swanny, an old acquaintance of Ann's approaches her. The two have a very involved history of jealousies, the jarring notes adding frisson and an ironic humour to the plot. This friend-cum-enemy of Ann's, Cary, is a television producer, who looks to Ann as a possible source of information. She happens to be making a documentary film about the unsolved murder, in 1905, of a Lizzie Roper, also of her mother, and of the disappearance of her infant daughter. Would Asta's book from the time reveal any information which would help? Lizzie Roper had lived only a few streets away from Asta at the time.
The novel now centres around Asta's diaries, which had gripped the public's imagination as they revealed a forgotten world. Ann decides to do a bit of literary investigation, and her reading of the diaries does seem to reveal significant gaps. Are there clues to the unsolved mystery in the details? Perhaps they hold the key to the unsolved murders - or others - or possibly no murders at all. What of the missing child - or perhaps there was no missing child. Had she been abducted? Or herself murdered? Was she still alive under another identity? Why was Asta's daughter, Swanny, who had been born in 1905, a lifelong favourite of her mother? There are secrets - and lies. Asta teases, and others suffer. There are misunderstandings. Some family secrets and hidden crimes have unintended consequences.
The denouement of the book is devious and clever, and clues are fed to the reader piece by cunning piece. The buried secrets of nearly a century before are gradually revealed, and the puzzle begins to make sense. But not all the threads will necessarily be tied into the plot. Some become unravelled again; they are deceptions, blind alleys. Asta's granddaughter and the reader alike will be baffled and intrigued until the last page.
This is a very satisfying read, with much cultural and historical richness and a complex multi-layered plot. A double detective story, it is full of depth. It effectively conveys Danish domesticity and claustrophobia, with much period detail, the whole given authenticity set against world events. It then graduates into the later parts, depicting the Edwardian love of sensational crime and lurid melodrama. The parts near the end which depict the newspaper reports of a famous Edwardian murder trial, are engrossing in themselves. The tension and thrills crank up as the novel nears its conclusion, and it is so skilfully constructed that the suspense does not let up for one moment, until all is revealed. The clues are there for those who can weave through such a tangled web, but there are many red herrings planted along the way. Murder and madness, shocks and senility, dark deeds and dementia, misalliance and misidentity, mystery and missing persons - we have it all in this riveting read.
As an interesting side-note, some of the copies of Asta's Book are alternatively titled Anna's Book. In the United States, Ruth Rendell's American publisher was apparently worried that the name "Asta" would remind potential readers of the dog from the "Thin Man" films!
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Read information about the authorPseudonym of Ruth Rendell.
Rendell created a third strand of writing with the publication of A Dark Adapted Eye under her pseudonym Barbara Vine in 1986. Books such as King Solomon's Carpet, A Fatal Inversion and Anna's Book (original UK title Asta's Book) inhabit the same territory as her psychological crime novels while they further develop themes of family misunderstandings and the side effects of secrets kept and crimes done. Rendell is famous for her elegant prose and sharp insights into the human mind, as well as her ability to create cogent plots and characters. Rendell has also injected the social changes of the last 40 years into her work, bringing awareness to such issues as domestic violence and the change in the status of women.
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