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Asta's Book

Asta's Book

4.5 2
by Ruth Rendell
An “obsessively readable” mystery from the New York Times–bestselling author of Dark Corners about a century-old diary that holds clues to a murder (The Sunday Telegraph).

 Asta Westerby is lonely. In 1905, shortly after coming to East London from Denmark with her husband and their two little boys, she feels


An “obsessively readable” mystery from the New York Times–bestselling author of Dark Corners about a century-old diary that holds clues to a murder (The Sunday Telegraph).

 Asta Westerby is lonely. In 1905, shortly after coming to East London from Denmark with her husband and their two little boys, she feels like a stranger in a strange land. And it doesn’t help that her husband is constantly away on business. Fortunately, she finds solace in her diary—and she continues to do so until 1967.
Decades later, her granddaughter, Ann, finds the journal, and it becomes a literary sensation, offering an intimate view of Edwardian life. But it also appears to hold the key to an unsolved murder and the disappearance of a child.
A modern masterpiece by the Edgar Award–winning author of the Inspector Wexford Mysteries, and an excellent choice for readers of P. D. James, Ian Rankin, or Scott Turow, Asta’s Book is at once a crime story, a historical novel, and a psychological portrait told through the diary itself and through Ann, who is bent on unlocking the journal’s excised mystery.

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Asta's Book

By Ruth Rendell


Copyright © 1993 Kingsmarkham Enterprises Ltd.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-1495-4


June 26th, 1905

IDAG TIL FORMIDDAG da jeg gik i Byen var der en Kone, som spurgte mig om der gik Isbjørne paa Gaderne i København.

When I went out this morning a woman asked me if there were polar bears in the streets of Copenhagen. She is one of our neighbours and she stands behind her gate waiting for people to go by so that she can catch them, and gossip. She thinks I must be a savage and half-witted too because I'm not English and I don't speak English well and stumble over words.

Most people here feel like that about us. It is not that there are no foreigners (as they see us), they are used to people from all over Europe, but they don't like us, any of us. They say we live like animals and take away their jobs. What must it be like for little Mogens at school? He doesn't tell me and I haven't asked, I don't want to know. I'd rather not know any more bad things. I'd like to know some good things but it's a puzzle to find them, as hard as finding a flower in these long grey streets. I close my eyes and remember Hortensiavej, the birch trees and the snowberries.

This morning, in the great heat and sun—sunshine is never nice in a city—I went to the stationers at the corner of Richmond Road and bought this notebook. I practised what I would say, the words I'd use, and I must have got it right because instead of grinning and leaning over me with his hand cupping his ear, the man in the shop just nodded and offered me two kinds, a thick one with a stiff black cover for sixpence and a cheaper one with a paper cover and lined pages. I had to take the cheap one for I daren't spend money on things like this. When Rasmus comes he will expect me to account for every penny I have spent, in spite of being the worst man in the world with money himself.

I haven't kept a diary since I was married, though I did when I was a girl. The last words in the last one I wrote two days before my wedding and then, the next day, I came to a decision and burnt all my diaries. This was because I had made up my mind there would be no place for writing in my new life. A good wife must devote herself to her husband and to making his home. That's what everyone told me and what I suppose I thought myself. I even thought there would be some pleasure about it. I was only seventeen and that's my excuse.

Eight years have gone by and I feel differently about a lot of things. There's no use moaning and no one to hear me if I do, still less to care, so what complaining I do I shall have to do in these pages. The funny thing is that once I had bought the notebook I felt a lot better. For no reason at all I felt hopeful. I was still all by myself in Lavender Grove with no one to talk to but Hansine—for what that's worth—with two little boys and a dead one to think about and another coming. That wasn't changed. Nor was the fact that I haven't seen my husband for five months and haven't heard from him for two. The notebook couldn't take away the heavy weight of this child I carry, swinging on the front of me like a great sack of flour. It was my loneliness it changed, which is one of the worst things I have to bear in this horrible foreign country. In a strange sort of way it seemed to take the edge off my loneliness. I thought, I'll have something to do this evening when Mogens and Knud are asleep. I'll have someone to talk to. Instead of brooding about Rasmus, about how you can dislike someone and not want him yet be jealous of him, instead of worrying about the boys and what's happening with this baby inside me, I'll be able to write again. I'll be able to write it all down.

And that's what I'm doing now. Hansine has been in and brought me the newspaper. I told her I was writing letters and not to turn down the gas, which is what she usually does, all in the great cause of saving his money. It would still be light in Copenhagen at ten but it gets dark half an hour earlier here. Hansine has pointed this out three times since Midsummer Day, just as she tells me with peasant regularity that the days have started getting shorter. She asked me if I had heard from 'Mr Westerby'. She always asks, though she knows the postman comes next door on both sides but never here. Why does she care? I believe she feels worse about him than I do, if possible. Probably she thinks that if he doesn't come back we three will end in the workhouse and she will lose her place.

The second time she came she wanted to make tea for me but I told her to go to bed. Soon, if no money comes, we shall all have to eat less and perhaps she will get thinner. Poor thing, she's so fat and getting fatter. I wonder if it's due to the white bread. None of us had ever tasted white bread before we came to England. The boys loved it and ate so much of it that they were sick. Now we have put the rye-bread cutter Tante Frederikke gave me for a wedding present away in a cupboard. I don't think we'll ever use it again. Yesterday I opened the cupboard and looked at it, it has become a symbol to me of our old life and I felt my eyes burn with tears. But I won't cry. That was the last time I cried, when Mads died, and I never will again.

This room where I'm sitting, the 'drawing room', would be tiny if I didn't keep the folding doors to the dining room open. All the landlord's furniture is ugly but for the mirror which is just a little bit less ugly than the rest of it, an oblong glass in a mahogany frame with carved mahogany leaves and flowers twining about the top of it. A branch with carved leaves on it actually comes across the glass, something I expect the carver thought very clever. I can see myself in this mirror, sitting at the circular table with its marble top and iron legs. It is like the tables I see in public houses when I pass their open doors. I am sitting in a chair that is covered up with a bit of brown and red tapestry to hide the worn patches where the horsehair is coming through.

The curtains are not drawn. Sometimes a carriage goes by, or more likely a cart in this dreary place, and sometimes I hear a horse stumble on the pitted road. If I look to the right I can see the garden outside the french windows, a tiny yard with bushes covered with blackish-green leaves that are the same winter and summer. This house is very small but the same number of rooms are crowded into it as in a proper size house. It's run-down and shabby round here, but pretentious, and that's what makes me angry.

In the mirror, in the pale gaslight, I can see just the upper half of myself, my thin face and my reddish hair that is coming loose from its pins and hanging beside my cheeks in wisps. I have the bluest eyes Rasmus ever saw, he told me before we were married, before I knew about the 5,000 kroner. But perhaps anyway it wasn't a compliment. Blue eyes aren't necessarily beautiful and I'm sure mine aren't. They are too blue, too bright, the kind of colour that is better on a peacock or a kingfisher. In fact, they are exactly the colour of the butterfly's wing in the brooch I had from Tante Frederikke for my sixteenth birthday.

Not that it matters what colour they are. No one looks at an old woman's eyes and I feel like an old woman, though I'm not quite twenty-five. That has reminded me to put the brooch on tomorrow. I like to wear it, not because it's pretty—it isn't—or because it flatters me—it doesn't—but, well, maybe out of what Rasmus calls my perversity and waywardness. I wear it to make people think, does that woman know that brooch is exactly the colour of her eyes? And, that woman ought to know better than to show up the ugly colour of her eyes. I like that. It's the kind of thing I enjoy, speculating about what people think of me.

The intolerable sun went down half an hour ago, dusk has come and it's quite dark outside now and very quiet. The street lamps are lit but it is still warm and close. I haven't recorded much on my first day of writing my new diary and I must record something, so I'll write down what I read in the paper about an awful accident to a Danish cadet training ship. I only read it because the Georg Stage is Danish and the accident happened near Copenhagen. A British steamer rammed into it in the dark and twenty-two young boys on board were killed. They were very young, from fourteen to sixteen. Still, I don't suppose I knew any of them or their parents.

June 28th, 1905

My baby is due on July 31st. Now, whenever she comes, it will be written down that July 31st is the day she was expected. I've put 'she'. Hansine would say that's tempting Providence. Luckily for me, she can't read. She gossips with people she meets when she goes out shopping, her English is awful but fluent and she doesn't mind making a fool of herself. I do and that's probably why my progress is so slow. But she can't read any language. If she could I wouldn't dare write in Danish which means not writing at all as I'm incapable of producing a line of English. 'She'—I want a girl. There's no one I dare tell that to and anyway no one here would care. Imagine saying something like that to the woman who asked me about the polar bears!

I wanted a girl last time, insofar as I wanted a baby at all, and instead it was poor little Mads who came along. He was dead within a month. So there, I have recorded that too. I do want this baby and I do want my daughter. Even if Rasmus never comes back, even if the worst happens and we have to make our way to Korsør and throw ourselves upon the mercy of Tante Frederikke and Farbror Holger, I want my daughter.

But I wish she would move. I know babies don't shift about so much in the last weeks. I should know, I've had three. I wish I could remember how it was with Mads. Did he go on moving about right up to the end? Did the others? Are girls different and might her stillness be a sign she's a girl? Next time and I expect there will be a next time, for that's woman's lot, I'll know. I won't need to remember, I'll have my diary and it makes me feel better to write these things down.

July 2nd, 1905

I don't write in this book every day. This is partly to keep it a secret from Hansine—she would try to guess what I was doing and think of something grotesque, letters to a lover perhaps. Imagine it!—and partly because it's not only a record of what I do but also of what I think. And it's about people. It's stories, too, I've always liked stories, telling them to myself, true and made up, and now of course I tell them to my boys. I tell them to myself as a way of getting to sleep, for instance, and in the daytime to get away from reality, which isn't too pleasant to say the least.

When I was a girl and kept a diary I put the stories in but I always had to be a bit careful about what I wrote in case Mother or Father found it. There is no place to hide anything where you can be absolutely sure it's safe from other people's eyes. But a foreign language makes things safe because it's like a code. It seems funny to call Danish a foreign language but that's what it is to everybody here. Well, not quite everybody. There must be Danes living here, our ambassador and consul and people like that and maybe professors at Oxford, and of course the Queen is Danish, and sometimes I read about Denmark in the papers.

Our Danish prince may become the first King of Norway, for instance, and there's been more about the Georg Stage. They've held an inquiry in Copenhagen but they say the President of the Court was biased and forgot to be impartial. The captain of the British ship broke down but still says he wasn't responsible for the deaths of those twenty-three boys. (Another has died since.) King Edward has sent his sympathies!

A much more important item is about a Russian ship called the Kniaz Potemkin. I wish I could understand better but there are so many long words. The people of Odessa, for some reason, wouldn't let the ship come ashore and take on provisions, or that's what I think happened, and so the ship turned its guns on the city and started shelling it. Those Russians are savages, worse than the Germans!

I saw a Cook's tour to Denmark advertised. If only I could go on it! We buy Danish bacon and there's a Danish firm that makes something to spread on your bread called Butterine. They're called Mønsted and the very name makes me homesick, so Danish, so familiar. But no Dane is likely to come to this house. Hansine can't read, Mogens and Knud haven't learned yet and I don't even know where Rasmus is. I could even put improper stories in only I don't know any.

If it was just a record of what I do this diary would be nothing but repetition. My days are all the same. I get up early because I wake up early and if I lie there all I do is brood about things and worry that the child inside me is sitting too high up. The boys are awake by the time I'm up and I wash their hands and faces and dress them and we go down to the breakfast Hansine has made. Coffee, of course, and the white bread Mr Spenner the baker brings and the boys love. A Dane needs coffee more than food and I drink three cups. I can be careful with money in almost every way but I can't give up a single cup of my coffee.

Hansine has begun talking to the boys in English. Mogens is better at it than she is, children of his age seem to pick up a language very fast, and he laughs at her mistakes which she doesn't mind a bit but laughs with him and clowns about. And then Knud tries to speak it and they all make fools of themselves but seem to think it the best joke in the world. I hate it because I can't join in. I am jealous and that's the truth. I'm jealous because she's a woman and they're men, after all, aren't they? Somehow I know that if I had a girl she'd be with me, she'd be on my side.

July 5th, 1905

I've thought of forbidding Hansine to speak English in the house and I think she'd obey me. She still respects me and is a bit afraid of me, though not half so afraid as she is of Rasmus. But I won't forbid it because I know I have to do the best I can for Mogens and Knud. They have to learn English, because they have to live here and do so perhaps for the rest of their lives.

Hansine takes Mogens to the school which is two streets away in Gayhurst Road. He wants to go alone and soon I'll let him, but not quite yet. She grumbles under her breath because when her visitor is in the house she gets fearful pains in her stomach. I stay at home with Knud and take him on my lap and tell him a story. It used to be H. C. Andersen for both the boys but when I left Denmark I left Andersen behind too. I suddenly realized how cruel some of his stories were. 'The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf', about Little Inge who had to spend all her life in the Bogwife's kitchen underground just because she was proud of her new shoes, that was my mother's favourite but it revolted me. 'The Tinderbox' was horrible too and 'The Little Match Girl', so I've started telling the boys stories I make up myself. At the moment it's a serial about a little boy called Jeppe with a magic friend who can do anything. This morning we got to the bit where the magic friend polishes all the green verdigris off the copper roofs in Copenhagen one night and when Jeppe wakes up in the morning they are bright shining red-gold.

When Hansine gets back I go out. I put on my hat and then the smock that covers my great belly and a cape to cover that and hope people can't see I'm expecting but I know they can. Then I walk. I just walk. I walk all the way down Lavender Grove and Wilman Grove to London Fields and over to Victoria Park, sometimes up to Hackney Downs or down to de Beauvoir Town, all these places whose names I can't even pronounce. Along the streets mostly, looking at the houses, the churches, the great buildings, but sometimes I walk on the grass of the marshes or by the canal. It's too hot to wear a cape but if I didn't I'd feel too ashamed of the shape of me to go out at all.

Hansine makes smørrebrød for luncheon but it's not the same without rye bread. I'd as soon not eat but I force myself for her sake, the baby's. If I don't go out walking again in the afternoon, and sometimes I do, I sit in the drawing room by the bay window. Our house in Lavender Grove is one in a row of nine, all joined together. It's not very pretty, in fact it's one of the ugliest I've ever seen, not as tall as it should be and built of grey bricks with clumsy stonework and wooden windows. There's a funny little stone face wearing a crown over the front porch and two more faces just the same over each of the upper windows. I wonder who they are or who they were meant to be, those girls with crowns on. But the house does have this bay window and a bit of garden in front with a hedge. I won't have net curtains, whatever Hansine says, because if I did I couldn't see out when I sit here and do my sewing.


Excerpted from Asta's Book by Ruth Rendell. Copyright © 1993 Kingsmarkham Enterprises Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Edgar Award–winning author Ruth Rendell (1930–2015) has written more than seventy books that have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (London), she is the recipient of the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Crime Writers’ Association. Rendell’s award-winning novels include A Demon in My View (1976), A Dark-Adapted Eye (1987), and King Solomon’s Carpet (1991). Her popular crime stories featuring Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford were adapted into a long-running British television series (1987–2000) starring George Baker.

Edgar Award–winning author Ruth Rendell (b. 1930) has written more than seventy books and sold more than twenty million copies worldwide. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (London), she is the recipient of the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Crime Writers’ Association. Rendell’s award-winning novels include A Demon in My View (1976), A Dark-Adapted Eye (1987), and King Solomon’s Carpet (1991). Her popular crime stories featuring Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford were adapted into a long-running British television series (1987–2000) starring George Baker.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
February 17, 1930
Place of Birth:
London, England
Loughton County High School for Girls, Essex

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Asta's Book 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
BookCore More than 1 year ago
You could say that I would HAVE to like this book. It's Ruth Rendell. It takes place in the UK. It starts in the Edwardian period, a historical setting I just love. And many of the characters are from Denmark. (I had a Swedish great-grandmother, so Scandinavian countries interest me.) The main character, Asta, puts the lie to the idea that all people (especially women) in the olden days were nice, sweet, submitted willingly to their husbands, and wanted lots of children. Asta was pretty cool - in her diary, she admits that she didn't want to have so many kids, and her husband wasn't her choice. Asta is smart and thinks for herself. She isn't always a nice person - she plays a cruel trick on the child who is supposedly her favorite. But other than that, I like her. I also like the narrator, Ann; and kudos to Rendell for having a character in her late 40s/early 50s who has a serious romance leading to a first marriage. The story also has 2 female friends who have a falling out over a man, then later reconcile - having figured out that they like each other better than either one of them liked him. All in all, very good story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The reader is drawn ever more deeply into an obcession to find the genesis of Swanny. Threaded through the quest is a decades old murder case. Top notch writing. Germaine