BOOK REVIEW / A cold fish in a shoal of red herrings: Asta's Book - Barbara Vine: Viking, pounds 15.99

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The Independent Culture
FOR her new novel, Barbara Vine, who is partly Danish as well as being partly Ruth Rendell, has put Danish characters in an east London setting, adding cultural and historical richness to an already complex narrative. The eponymous Book is a diary, started in 1905 and spanning 62 years, written by a Danish woman who has come to live in Hackney with her husband and two small sons. Asta is 25 when the diary begins and pregnant with, she hopes, a longed-for daughter. Years later, after Asta's death, the journal has become famous as a sort of Urban Diary of a Edwardian Lady, and Swanny, daughter, translator and keeper of her mother's flame, is a cult figure.

When Swanny also dies, her niece, Asta's granddaughter Ann Eastbrook, inherits the diaries, and it is Ann's perusal of them that reveals significant gaps. She marks a passing reference to a Lizzie Roper who lived near Asta. Coincidentally, an old enemy of Ann's, a woman who 'stole my lover from me and married him', is working on a documentary film about the unsolved murder, in 1905, of Lizzie Roper, and the disappearance of her infant daughter. (Lizzie Roper's mother was killed at the same time, but she was an old harridan and so nobody cared very much.)

The plot thickens, as only a Barbara Vine plot can: is it possible that Swanny was not really Asta's daughter, but the abducted child of Lizzie Roper? After all, in her old age, Swanny's personality underwent a disturbing split, and from time to time the svelte literary icon would lapse into a shuffling slattern with a penchant for knitting 'somethink' in lilac wool. Was Swanny reverting to type, or was it just senile dementia? Or might Swanny have been the daughter of Asta's long-suffering servant, Hansine?

Like all Barbara Vine's work, the novel is meticulously researched. You can check the route taken by the suspected murderer, Lizzie's husband, and indeed all the locations, in an A-Z; you can feel the summer heat rising from the pavements, breathe the stuffy air of claustrophobic rooms, and smell the sweaty, stifling clothes. Vine excels at describing houses, and makes them as sinister, as much part of the action, of any of her characters; there is The House of Stairs itself, and Ecalpemos in A Fatal Inversion, and here we have the ordinary-sounding Devon Villa, where the murdered Lizzie Roper and her mother lie undiscovered for days, and the disappearing child, a recurrent Vine/Rendell preoccupation, makes her last, laborious ascent of the long staircase. Even the large doll's house built by Asta's husband gives a telling cameo performance.

This is an engrossing double-detective story, a mixture of biography, true crime and romance peopled with vivid minor players and red with herrings. Asta herself is a bit of a cold fish; her diaries generate no warmth, even when she writes of her love for her children or a late, unconsummated, love affair, and that makes their popular success, for all their period detail set against the background of world events, a little hard to understand. The tone of her first person singular militates against her as much as her own actions do: we can feel some sympathy for her in her exile with a husband often away on business, but even she acknowledges that she lacks 'niceness'.

Still, one doesn't look for niceness in Barbara Vine characters: mystery, suspense and a consuming plot are all provided, and while there are thematic threads running through her work, Vine reinvents herself as a novelist every time.