by Barbara Vine
Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine) is one of the mystery writers whose novels blur the line between popular and literary fiction. Especially in so-called psychological thrillers like Anna's Book (Asta's Book in the UK), Rendell prefers to write character studies, which are more often associated with serious literature.
Anna's Book isn't really a thriller. It is slow-paced, and the crime occurred decades before the narrator's lifetime. The "suspense" is the build up to the disclosure of one character's true identity. The focus of Anna's Book is how that character fell apart after an anonymous note called into question her parentage.
The Anna of the book title was a Danish immigrant to early-20th-century London whose diaries became bestsellers after her death. Her daughter Swanny (Swanhild) was in the public eye as editor of the diaries while carrying around the tormenting suspicion that Anna hadn't given birth to her.
After Swammy dies, her niece and Anna's granddaughter Ann continues the search for the truth about Swammy's parentage. Interspersed between Ann's first-person narrative are excerpts from Anna's diaries and transcripts of a long-ago murder trial that might have a bearing on Swammy's identity.
Broadening the mystery story, Vine/Rendell ranges over issues of family dynamics, immigration, and class distinctions. Her portrait of the imperious Anna is well drawn. In her characterization of Swammy in particular, Vine/Rendell shows the psychological acuity for which she is celebrated. Her unhurried, meticulous prose probes the recesses of a woman losing her foundation. If one difference between serious literature and popular entertainment is having a theme, there's no doubt that Anna's Book is serious literature. With the theme of needing to know who we are, it is very serious indeed.
Home My reviews My friends' reviews