Monday 27 August 2012

Chris Simmons's Book To Die For - Asta's Book by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)

Chris Simmons started over seven years ago on his own and now has a team of seven dedicated reviewers to highlight the best in current crime fiction.  In such a short time has become one of the most popular crime review websites garnering respect and praise from publishers, authors and readers.  Due to his pioneering for debut crime authors, Chris Simmons was a judge for the John Creasey/New Blood CWA Dagger four years running.  Now his judging has recently ended, Chris will soon be bringing out his own collection of short stories on e-book, whilst also trying desperately to catch up with four year’s worth of crime novels!

Asta’s Book’ has been number one of my Top Ten for nearly twenty years.  Personally, for me Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) has produced some of the most ground breaking novels of our time. Having read all her books I prefer the Vine canon of work as they again pushed the boundaries and the writer produced more of a novel with a crime element than what could be classed as a ‘normal’ work of crime fiction. Kate Atkinson and Susan Hill have been applauded in recent times for interweaving mainstream literature with crime fiction, something Rendell has been doing since the 80’s with her first Vine novel, ‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’.

My favourite of the Vine books is by far ‘Asta’s Book’.  It intrigued me with its premise with Asta and her husband, Rasmus arriving from Denmark to begin a new life in Hackney in 1905. It is a loveless marriage and Asta is homesick for her country and pours her heart and soul in to diaries that she keeps for the rest of her life. After their arrival in Britain, Asta has two more children including her favourite, Swanny. However, typically with Vine there is something not quite right and despite her continual blustering and sidestepping, Asta swerves her daughter’s constant hankering to know if she really is Asta’s daughter or some changeling. It isn’t until Asta’s granddaughter, Ann discovers the diaries decades later and publishes them to great acclaim that the truth about Asta and her favourite daughter, Swanny begins to emerge.

The prose in ‘Asta’s Book’ is lyrical and the characters and places, especially Hackney is so vividly brought to life (most probably as I was born in the area).  Asta can be cold and cynical but the unconditional love she feels for her ‘little Swanny’ is wonderful to behold. The writing is rhythmic and the book flows smoothly like a good wine, so that Vine with professionalism alternates between the past and the present with ease. ‘Asta’s Book’ can never simply be defined as a crime novel – it is a novel about families, about immigration, about love and above all: identity.  With the recent explosive interest in genealogy, more people than ever feel the need to know their ancestors and discover their family tree. ‘Asta’s Book’ perfectly puts this in to perspective.  Do we really need to know our past or does the unconditional love of a parent solve our need to know who we truly are?

The ‘crime’ itself, the trial of Alfred Roper is buried deep within the book and could be classed as a side issue, for the real crux of the novel is the relationship between mother and daughter. Reading this book back on its release in 1993, moved me so much that I wrote my one and only ever fan letter to the author about how I had loved this book. She replied and mentioned that Asta and Rasmus had originally been built on her own grandparents although by the end of the book neither of them was remotely like the portrayed characters in the book. No other book has ever propelled me to write to an author the way ‘Asta’s Book’ ever did.  This novel shows Vine/Rendell at her zenith and is sublime in its subtlety and through her gentle prose unravels a conundrum that is breathtaking as it is heartbreaking. This is why it has stayed with me nearly twenty years after the reading. I strongly suggest you read it. This is why ‘Asta’s Book’ will always be my number one and my book to die!


Minnie said...

Excellent review - thank you. I, too, found this novel resonated for years after reading it (within a year of its publication).
You've prompted me to have a re-read!

Philip Swan said...

I share your enthusiasm for ASTA'S BOOK - I first read it in 1993 (a co-worker's sister brought me a copy from England prior to US publication as ANNA'S BOOK) and reading it has since become an annual tradition - I've read it 14 times and I'm STILL finding clues!!! One of my earliest correspondences with RR was about the book - "How did you do it?" I asked her. "I don't know how I did it!" she replied modestly. I've met RR twice and she's signed several different copies of ASTA'S BOOK for me, including that original British copy and several foreign-language translations. My favorite book by my favorite author, which I nowadays basically just consider my favorite book, period. And the best mystery novel I've ever read, as well.