Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine

What an amazing book is Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine*. It was published as Anna’s Book in the USA. I loved A Dark Adapted Eye, A Fatal Inversion and The House of Stairs, but Asta’s Book tops all those.  I think it’s brilliant!

It’s a book that demanded all my attention and I just didn’t want to put it down. There’s a murder, a missing child, a question of identity and overarching it all are the stories of two families – the Westerbys and the Ropers and all the people connected to them. So many characters, so many red herrings, so many incidents that at first did not appear to be of any or of much importance that turned out to have great relevance.

It had me going backwards and forward and placing so many markers in the book to try and keep track of it all. How did Barbara Vine handle so much material in such a clever way? It is so intricately plotted and the portrayal of so many characters is so skilfully handled.

It begins in 1905 when Asta Westerby and her husband Rasmus have come to East London from Denmark with their two little boys and their servant Hansine. With Rasmus constantly away on business, Asta keeps loneliness and isolation at bay by writing a diary in her native tongue of Danish. The story is not told chronologically, but switches backwards and forwards between Asta’s diaries, beginning in 1905 when she was pregnant and hoping the new baby would be a daughter, and the present day after Asta’s death. The diaries had been translated and published by her daughter Swanny (Swanhilde), and along with details of the family’s life reveal clues to an unsolved murder and to the mystery of a missing child. After Swanny died Asta’s granddaughter Ann became involved in searching for the truth about these facts. Additional material is also related through a trial transcript and various accounts of events by different people.

The book kept me guessing all the way throughout the various mysteries it threw up. I was very tempted to peek at the end of the book for the answers, but managed not to and I’m glad I didn’t as it would have ruined the suspense. I was so impressed at how it all hung together, with no extraneous material – all those minor incidents and characters are completely necessary.

As in other books by Barbara Vine it is not only the characters and the mystery that are enthralling, it is also the atmosphere and the settings. Houses in her books take on characters of their own and in this one there are several, maybe the most dominant is Devon Villa where Lizzie Roper was murdered, her mother also died of a heart attack and Lizzie’s daughter, Edith was last seen as she climbed the stairs up to her mother’s bedroom. And then there is the doll’s house that Rasmus made for his daughter, Marie, replicating Padanaram, the Westerbys’ second house in Shepherd’s Hill, Highgate.

*Barbara Vine is the pseudonym of Ruth Rendell, who was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of many thrillers and psychological murder mysteries . She died in 2015 at the age of 85. Her mother was born in Sweden and brought up in Denmark; her father, Arthur Grasemann, was English. As a result of spending Christmas and other holidays in Scandinavia, Rendell learned Swedish and Danish.

Asta’s Book is my third book for the 20 books of Summer Challenge and the 25th for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. Definitely a book I’d love to re-read.

My Week in Books: 8 June 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.


Now:
 I’ve just started Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham, his first book featuring British detective Fiona Griffiths.

Blurb:

A young girl is found dead. A prostitute is murdered. And the strangest, youngest detective in the South Wales Major Crimes Unit is about to face the fiercest test of her short career.

A woman and her six-year-old daughter are killed with chilling brutality in a dingy flat. The only clue: the platinum bank card of a long-dead tycoon, found amidst the squalor.

DC Griffiths has already proved herself dedicated to the job, but there’s another side to her she is less keen to reveal. Something to do with a mysterious two-year gap in her CV, her strange inability to cry – and a disconcerting familiarity with corpses.

Fiona is desperate to put the past behind her but as more gruesome killings follow, the case leads her inexorably back into those dark places in her own mind where another dead girl is waiting to be found.

I’m still reading Andrew Marr’s A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr, basically Britain after the end of the Second World War up to 2006, with an added introduction in the paperback edition written in 2008. I’ve read up to page 152 so far out of 672 pages. It will be a while  before I finish this book – I don’t read non-fiction quickly!

Then:The last book I read was High Rising by Angela Thirkell. See this post for my review.

Next: It  will most likely be one of the books on my 20 Books of Summer list, probably Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine.

Blurb:

Asta and her husband Rasmus have come to east London from Denmark with their two sons. With Rasmus constantly away on business, Asta keeps loneliness and isolation at bay by writing her diary. These diaries reveal themselves to be more than a journal, for they seem to hold the key to an unsolved murder.

New-To-Me Books August 2015

Aug 15 bksAnother visit to Barter Books in Alnwick resulted in another pile of books to add to my TBR shelves.

From top to bottom they are:

  • The Riddle of the Third Mile by Colin Dexter – to fill in my gaps in reading his Inspector Morse books. This is the 6th in the series – Inspector Morse isn’t sure what to make of the truncated body found dumped in the Oxford Canal. He suspects it may be all that’s left of an elderly Oxford don last seen boarding a London train days before.
  • Hangman’s Holiday and Other Stories by Dorothy L Sayers – the ninth in her Lord Peter Wimsey series, this includes  four Wimsey stories, six stories featuring Montague Egg (travelling salesman for Plummet & Rose, Wine & Spirits), and two more separate stories.
  • Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie – this is one of the last few books of hers I have yet to read. It’s historical crime fiction set in Egypt 4,000 years ago, written drawing on her experience of several  expeditions to the Middle East with her husband, Max Malloran, an eminent archaeologist.
  • The Blood Doctor by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) – one of her psychological thrillers, described on the back cover as ‘a chilling tale of ambition, obsession and bad blood.‘ I still have a lot of Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell books to read.
  • Call the Dying by Andrew Taylor – I’m jumping into a series with this book as this is the 7th in the Lydmouth mysteries and I haven’t read any of the others. They are all are set in and around a fictional town on the Anglo-Welsh borders in the years after World War II.
  • The Secret Place by Tana French – the 5th in the Dublin Murder Mystery series. I read the first,  In the Woods a few years ago and liked its psychological elements and the twists and turns.  In this book Detective Stephen Moran investigates the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper when sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him a photo of Chris with the caption, I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.
  • Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson – a complete change from crime fiction – a book I bought in Tescos for £1. It’s described on the book cover as  ‘a novel about love – love of women, love of literature, love of laughter. It shows our funniest writer at his brilliant best.‘ I felt like reading something different.

If you’ve read any of these books I’d love to know what you think about them.

The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine

I’ve had The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine sitting on my unread shelves for a while and when the R.I.P. IX Challenge came up I thought it would be a good book to include in the challenge, because the cover blurbs describe it as a ‘horrifying mystery’, ‘chilling’ and with a ‘horrible climax’.

Brimstone wedding

My copy is a second-hand paperback, which is no longer in print, but The Brimstone Wedding is available as an e-book.

Jenny Warner is a carer at a retirement home, Middleton Hall where she meets Stella Newland, who is dying of lung cancer. At first Stella never mentions her husband or her past life, but gradually she confides in Jenny, telling her things she has never said to her son and daughter – things about her life she doesn’t want them to know. 

Their stories intertwine, some narrated by Jenny and some by Stella as she records events in her life on a tape recorder which she leaves to Jenny.  They have more in common than Jenny initially thought and as Stella slowly reveals her past the tension in the book begins to mount.

The atmosphere is mysterious, a house isolated in the fens, seems to hold the key to the past. The description of the house is superb, set in an overgrown garden, with clothes still hanging in the wardrobe, food and champagne still sitting in the fridge and a red Ford Anglia locked in the garage. It’s all very subtle at first with tantalising hints about what had really happened in Stella’s past, but the full horror is left to the end, which by that time I was itching to find out if it was what I suspected it was. I was not disappointed; it’s not horrific in the overblown graphic sense, but in a sinister, psychological way that really is ‘chilling’ and inexpressibly sad.

Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, writes beautifully and powerfully yet in a controlled manner, nothing is left out but there are no superfluous characters or sub-plots. Everything ties in well and the subtle horror of what I was reading gripped me. It is indeed a ‘chilling’ book. It’s about love, hate and indifference, about relationships between couples and families, and about obsession, deceit and betrayal.

Here are just a few quotations that I noted as I read. The opening sentences, set the scene and illustrate Jenny’s superstitious nature. Throughout the book there are numerous examples of her beliefs:

The clothes of the dead don’t wear long. They fret for the person who owned them. Stella laughed when I said that. She threw back her head and laughed in the surprisingly girlish way she had. I was telling her Edith Webster had died in the night and left cupboards full of clothes behind her, and she laughed and said she’d never known anyone as superstitious as me. (page 3)

and

When you deceive people you make fools of them. You make them act stupidly, act as if things which are aren’t and things which aren’t are. And that’s what fools do or people who are mentally disturbed and we look down on them for it or if we’re unkind we laugh at them. (page 17)

She is also aware of ill omens – a bird dying in your hand means your hands will shake for ever, it also means a death in the family and red and white flowers mixed are the worst possible omen at a funeral meaning there will be another death. I was wondering what significance the title has: Jenny has been married for thirteen years, which according to her mother is a ‘Brimstone Wedding’ anniversary. Jenny thinks:

Maybe because it’s explosive or because it’s hard and dark like a burning stone, which is what brimstone means. (page 231)

I think The Brimstone Wedding is one of the best of Barbara Vine’s books that I’ve read – nearly as good as A Dark-Adapted Eye and writing under her real name, Ruth Rendell, A Judgement in Stone. It certainly qualifies not only for the R.I.P. Challenge, but also for the Mount TBR Challenge 2014 and the My Kind of Mystery Challenge.

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine: a Book Review

I finished reading The House of Stairs, the  third psychological thriller by Barbara Vine yesterday. It is a most remarkable book, in that it turns a murder mystery upside down, as it were. It is clear from the start that there has been a murder and the murderer is known – she has just been released from prison. But who did she murder? Why, where, when and how? The other characters all know – but not the reader.

The crime is only revealed very gradually, building up the suspense and tension in a series of flashbacks, as you realise the how, the where and the when, but only by inference – guesswork on my part really. The why too, can be worked out, but as for the who – I kept changing my mind, only finally deciding it must be this person, just a few pages before the denouement.  Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara  Vine certainly sets a puzzle, a tangled web of characters, situations, and psychological profiles. And, of course, there is a certain ambiguity right at the end. It’s not a book you can read quickly, but it certainly kept me turning the pages wanting to know what had happened.

The first person narrator is Elizabeth, who is told a terrible secret about her mother and lives her life as a consequence in fear of inheriting the family disease. At the beginning of the book she sees her old friend Bell, and follows her at a short distance, not sure it really is her. It gives her a sense of unease and a quiver of panic bringing back memories of earlier events that had resulted in Bell’s imprisonment for murder fourteen years ago.

She and Bell and a number of other characters (who come and go) lived with Cosette in the House of Stairs, so called because it’s a big house on five floors with a staircase of 106 stairs.  Cosette had been married to Elizabeth’s mother’s cousin and they came to view each other as mother and daughter. Cosette is a caring character, very tolerant and easy-going, one who welcomes other people into her home, who listens to them and leaves them feeling revitalized. Bell, however, is cold and uncaring. The menace is felt as Bell climbs the stairs to her room on the top floor, the 104th step creaking as she does so and enters the room, the room with the dangerous window that came down to no more than six inches or so from the floor (page 121).

There is so much I could write about this book. For one thing there are various allusions to Henry James’s work, which Elizabeth is studying hoping to write a thesis about James – to say any more would be to reveal too much.  Another allusion is to Tennyson’s poem Mariana and one that interested me greatly to a painting by Bronzino of Lucrezia Panciatichi, dressed in a beautiful red gown. It reminds Elizabeth of Bell, and when she wears a similar red dress found in Cosette’s belongings the resemblance is striking. I found a reproduction of the painting on Wikipedia:

Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi (circa 1540), Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Lucrezia Panciatichi by Angelo Bronzino

Elizabeth has a thought, which struck me as particularly chilling. She looks at people

… wondering which of them, if any, are like her. I mean like her in that they have killed someone and been sent to prison for it, served their sentence and come out again. It is a new phenomenon. Murderers used to be hanged.

Now they are set free and come back to live among us. Or to exist. I look at people and I wonder. … ordinary people looking like everyone else, having ordinary jobs, perhaps living next door. (page 212)

The House of Stairs:

  • Paperback: 282 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin 1989
  • Source: I bought the book (a secondhand copy)
  • Rating 4/5

Barbara Vine’s earlier psychological thrillers are:

A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine: Book Review

A few months ago we went to the Science Centre in Glasgow where we spent time in the Planetarium, looking at the night sky as it appears without urban light pollution. To see the stars and planets you need a dark-adapted eye and the lights are slowly dimmed until they all come into focus.

In Barbara Vine’s A Dark-Adapted Eye, the narrator Faith has spent her life avoiding thinking, talking or reading about at the events that led up to her aunt’s hanging for murder. She only develops a “dark-adapted eye” very slowly when asked by a crime writer for her memories. This is psychological crime fiction, you know right from the beginning who the murderer is, but not why or how the murder was committed. It’s not even clear immediately who the victim is.

Slowly, very slowly, with lots of hints and questions about how things could have turned out differently the family relationships and events that led up to the tragedy are revealed. Because of this it’s not a quick read and I think it’s a book that could stand many re-readings, just to work out how everything ties in together and for different perspectives to become clearer. I borrowed this book from the library, but it’s one I’d like to own to delve into its secrets.

Faith and the other members of her family are all so well described and the settings too. This is a book where you can see events and people so clearly through their thoughts and emotions as much as through their actions, but their secrets are so well concealed. Vera, Faith’s aunt, prim, snobbish and obsessional is the murderer. Her brother is shocked and removes all photos of her, refusing to read the newspaper reports or go to her trial, as does Faith. Slowly, it appears that Vera has killed her half-sister, the beautiful, the perfect Eden, but how or why is not clear until near the end of the book, or at least it wasn’t clear to me. Francis, Vera’s elder son changed his name as soon as she was arrested and the younger son, Jamie is living in Italy as the book begins. Jamie has a major part in the story but he was only 6 when his mother was hanged and remembers nothing about the situation.

Eden and Vera have a love/hate relationship, which only gets worse as the years go by. I began by disliking both of them, then swinging from one to the other as Faith describes them and their relationship. In fact I was doing that all the way through this book, never quite sure what to believe. And by the end just when you think you understand it all, Vine throws everything into question yet again and the reader is left to decide just what did happen, just what was the truth. Fantastic.