Anna's Book, by Barbara Vine

>> Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Ruth Rendell (who writes this book as Barbara Vine) isn't a new author for me. I picked up a few of her books pre-Internet, when I used to comb the shelves of the couple of stores selling paperbacks in English for anything that sounded interesting. I actually remember reading a couple: Simisola and Judgment in Stone. I can't really remember details, but I do recall finding them interesting, if a bit depressing. Looking through the deepest depths of my TBR shelves, I've found a couple more (Road Rage and The Keys to The Street), so I guess I liked her enough to buy more.

Anna's Book wasn't one of the books I had, though. I got this one after reading the review at AAR and thinking it sounded like just my thing.


Anna is a young woman living in turn-of-the-century London, confiding her rebellious thoughts and well-guarded secrets only to her diary. Years later, her granddaughter discovers that a single entry has been cut out - an entry that may forge a link between her own mother's birth and a gory, unsolved murder in the long hot summer of 1905. But by whom? And why? Ann Eastbrook embarks on a dark journey into a forbidden history, to a place where truth, passion, and deceit are explosively intertwined.
This was a brilliant, amazing book, combining a truly fascinating mystery and wonderful psychological portrayals. An A.

I've purposely chosen the most obscure blurb available to paste above, because I truly do think this is a book better read without much knowledge of what will happen. By the time it got here to Uruguay, I'd forgotten every single specific thing about the book that I'd read in the review, just remembered the feeling of really wanting to read it that it gave me, and as I read, I loved not having the slightest idea of where things might be going.

I'll just mention the very basics here. The book's present-day narrator is Ann Eastbrook, granddaughter of Anna Westerby, a Danish immigrant who moved to London in the early 20th century. Married to an absent man she wasn't too fond of, the mother of two boys and expecting a third, the 25-year-old Anna starts a diary in Danish, which allows her to write down her thoughts with total and absolute honesty, because no one is likely to understand it.

Anna keeps up this diary for years, and after her death, many decades later, her elder daughter, Swanny (Ann Eastbrook's aunt), finds it and has it published to great acclaim. The present-day action of the book starts right after Swanny has died and left Ann everything. And here begins Ann's investigation into the events of the past, especially those surrounding Swanny's birth in 1905, an investigation which has some unexpected connections to a notorious murder case which took place near the Westerby's place that year.

And that is all I'm going to say about the plot. It really is worth it to discover it as the author meant for it to be discovered. Bit by painstaking bit, Vine reveals what happened with flawless timing, and using a variety of voices: from parts of Anna's diary, to Famous Trials accounts of the Roper case, from Ann narrating what Swanny has told her to Ann narrating her the present-day investigation as it happens, they're all there, and they all sound very different.

Every one of the characters here is believable. Their portrayal is unusually deep and complex... no one is perfectly good or perfectly bad, but they are all interesting. As I read the diary entries, I actually caught myself thinking that it was too bad we couldn't read all the diary entries, because maybe we were missing some important clue! Took me a while to remember there wasn't actually a diary, and that we weren't likely to miss any clues, because it was all being carefully crafted by Vine.

The mystery in the book is just as wonderfully constructed. It's the best kind: the clues are all there, and when you finally know everything, you can't believe you never thought of it... it's just obvious, but in the best way possible. My reaction wasn't "hmm, ok, I guess it might have happened that way. Not very probable, but possible". It was "Of course!! How didn't I see that it had to have happened that way?". It just felt so right!

I highly recommend Anna's Book, even if you're not a big mystery fan. It really is worth it.

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