Desert Isle Keeper
I first read Anna’s Book in 1998, before once again starting to read romance. I’d recently made my way through almost all of Stephen King’s oeuvre, and I remember asking the librarian if she had any good recommendations for fiction. She handed me this book, and I took it home and quickly became enthralled by it. I read it several times. I recommended it to everyone I knew. I even braved the new online world to get a hardcover copy of it for myself as it had gone out of print. It was the best read of the year for me.
The problem with books that you once were enthralled by is that when you go to read them again you have to face your trepidation that your reading experience might have been a fluke, that the book really wasn’t that great, it just happened to hit you right at that time. As I picked this up for a reread, I was slightly nervous. I needn’t have been. Even though this is a mystery and I remembered all the spoilerish details that resolve the book’s many puzzles, I was still riveted by the wonderful writing and the fascinating psychological character portraits Ruth Rendell (writing as Barbara Vine) creates.
Anna’s Book is primarily a psychological mystery, although Rendell deftly juggles a whodunit within her story-within-a-story-within-a-story format. The book’s organizational narrator is Ann Eastbrook, a contemporary middle-aged Englishwoman. Ann’s grandmother, however, is the titular “Anna,” and her diary entries are the heart of the novel. Ann’s Aunt Swanny, Anna’s daughter, also adds her two cents, and the book’s main mysteries center around her origins. Confusing enough? I’ll try to explain.
Anna Westerby emigrated from Denmark around the turn of the century, and for over sixty years kept a secret diary written in Danish. Swanny, her daughter and favorite child, found Anna’s diaries only after her death. For years Swanny was haunted by suspicions that she had been adopted at birth, suspicions which Anna alternately confirmed and denied much to Swanny’s psychological detriment. When Swanny stumbles across her mother’s memoirs, she thinks at last she has the key to the mystery of her birth. Unfortunately, this turns out not to be the case; however, in the process of translating them, Swanny realizes their literary value, and Anna’s diaries are published and become a phenomenon all over the world. Eventually Swanny dies and Ann inherits the diaries and Swanny’s house. Cary, an old friend and rival, approaches Ann at that point asking to see the diaries. Cary is producing a film about an old unsolved London murder which Anna made mention of in her diaries. She asks Ann if she is aware that certain diary entries appear to be missing. Those diary entries happen to fall right around the time of Swanny’s birth, and with this discovery, Ann is drawn into a web of mystery in which entirely unconnected events turn out to be connected after all.
If I were to make a list of things I love to see in fiction and compare it with this book, I’d be checking off one thing after another. I love books that have old houses with hidden mysteries; I love books with diary entries. I’m a sucker for true crime, especially historical crimes that remain unsolved. I love reading about the immigrant experience and the difference between two cultures. I adore it when authors use different narrative voice techniques to round out a story. Anna’s Book has all of these.
At the heart of the story are Anna’s diary entries. Anna is an interesting person, often impatient, snobbish, and callous in her assessment and interaction with the people around her. She dislikes her husband Rasmus and holds it against him that he married her for her dowry and keeps getting her pregnant. She is concerned about her children and affectionate toward them, but most of the time she’d rather leave their care to Hansine, the maid of all work. However, her views on life as a woman and an immigrant make for captivating reading, and it is at times difficult and disappointing to realize that her diaries are fictional, and cannot be read in their entirety. Anna comes to life even in fictional “death.” She is imperfect, often downright unkind, but she has integrity, charisma, and originality in spades.
Ann, the main narrator, is less compelling, but she is there primarily to connect the book’s mysteries and help keep them straight. Ann tells the story of her aunt, Swanny, through her own reminiscences and the stories of others, linking those stories to accounts in the diaries. Swanny has a less colorful character than Anna’s but her search and eventual failure to find her origins makes for emotional reading.
The book’s other mystery concerns a murder and the disappearance of a child. At just the time Swanny was born, a woman named Lizzie Roper was found in a house nearby with her throat cut and her child gone missing. Her husband was tried for the murder, but the child, Edith, was never found. Rendell highlights this case by including passages from books about the trial, newspaper accounts, and a neighbor’s tell-all gossiping about the Roper’s marriage. All of this is, of course, fictional, but, again, it’s easy to forget that since each narrative has its own “voice” and all of those voices sound authentic.
Each of the book’s characters rings true psychologically, though all of them are quite different. At times Anna is downright unlikable, and it’s very difficult to understand her behavior, especially coming from a modern view about adoption and acknowledging birthparents. Yet despite her insensitivity and seeming cruelty, there are passages from her diaries that are profoundly touching and even romantic. By book’s end it becomes apparent that the line between tragedy and wonder in this situation was very fine, and only timing and personality kept it from being crossed. How sad, and how true to life.
Since reading this book I’ve read a number of other Barbara Vine books, all of which revolved around secrets and family dysfunction in interesting ways. However, none of those books had the heart of this book, and most of them had characters that were in some way horrifyingly selfish. Anna’s Book has the flawed Anna, but in many ways she’s a delight as a character. She’s impossible to hate. And it’s such a thrill to discover the answers to the many mysteries presented that it’s easier to mentally reconcile the book’s bittersweet tone.
I’ve written this review of an older book for two reasons. The first is that it’s a treat to write gushingly about a book I so enjoyed, and the second is because I’m hoping against hope that some reader out there will have already read it and loved it and so can direct me to books that are similar in some way to this one. Anna’s Book is my all-time favorite mystery novel, an extraordinary piece of writing and riddle. And it can be found extraordinarily reasonably at Amazon. All good reasons to pick it up as soon as possible. I cannot recommend it more strongly.