Anna’s Book by Barbara Vine

After the death of the tortured aunt who edited her grandmother’s best-selling diaries, a second-generation Danish-British woman seeks to find out the truth of her aunt’s parentage, which may be linked to an infamous murder case.

The complexity of Anna’s Book (originally published as Asta’s Book) is reminiscent of A Dark-Adapted Eye, and both books are now tied as my favorite of the books crime novelist Ruth Rendell has written as Barbara Vine. Both books deal with a tangled family history as revealed by a relative removed enough to be innocent, yet still stained by the family secrets.

Vine’s prose is hypnotic, promising secrets within every paragraph, prompting me to linger on each page to ensure that I’ve gleaned every ounce of information they contain. The ultimate revelation was a bit tidy, yet it worked because of all that had come before. Like in A Dark Adapted-Eye, Vine makes it seem as though you’re reading an actual family history–the details are so precise, so naturalistic, and the telling so truthfully elliptical that I wanted to seek out Anna’s best-selling diaries to read them for myself. Of course they don’t exist, but Vine’s other accomplishment is to craft a book-within-a-book that passes for a real book. The appeal of Anna’s diaries–of Anna within her diaries–is gripping from the first word we read.

The characters here are suitably, originally flawed, adding to the verisimilitude of the piece. Anna’s petty attitude towards her housekeeper Hansine, and the subtle class warfare that permeates the story, which spans the 20th Century, is typical of Vine’s command of characterization and psychology. Anna’s Book teems with perception even as the characters themselves are obtuse.

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