There are numerous collective nouns used to describe a gathering of birds that have rather sinister inferences. Take a parliament of owls, a murder of crows or an unkindness of ravens for example. Then there are the animals associated with the judiciary, I’m referring to a kangaroo court and until recently having lived in Ireland for the past 38 years or so I thought I’d seen every tribunal conceivable, until I read this month’s book. It’s The Bird Tribunal written by Agnes Ravatn and published in 2016 by Orenda Books (www.orendabook.co.uk)
After a scandal involving her and a superior, TV presenter Allis Hagtorn tries to rebuild her life by going into exile as a home help and gardener for the mysterious and brooding Sigurd Bagge, working and living in his house on a remote Norwegian fjord. Everything about this new life seems like a jump from the frying pan into fire as she contends with his almost teenage like moodiness and the caustic remarks and stares of the neighbours, especially the woman in the local village shop. Also, what of his wife, who is mysteriously absent. Is she away working? Travelling? Dead? or has she left him? If she’s dead, did he murder her and if so, will Aliss be next? Add to that the question of what Sigurd is doing inside his off-limits bedroom all day and how long will her exile last?
In these ever time starved lives we lead it gets harder and harder to find space to read a book. Usually it’s on the commute to and from work if you use public transport. Maybe you snatch a couple of minutes at bed time before your body succumbs to fatigue and drags you under for 6-8 hours? There’s always audio books too. So, normal sized books which have on average about 300 pages really have to be very good to compete with everything else in your life. Smaller books which just about get above the Novella moniker are great finds and if well written pure gold… That where we find The Bird Tribunal. At one hundred and eighty-five pages Ravatn and her translator Rosie Hedger deliver a fantastic page turner inside what is basically a literary matchbox.
From the moment you turn the first page till you close the back cover, Ravatn slowly cranks up the momentum in this brilliantly written psychological thriller to where the book is positively exuding mystery and sexual tension, something I haven’t found in a Scandi Noir book in a while. If this is 50 Shades in Scandinavia, then the desperate housewives and yummy mummies of the rest of the world who almost beat each other black and blue to gobble up as much of the virile Mr Grey, in his almost 900 plus pages over three books, have seriously missed out.
As for the characters, both are rather sketchy. They come across as being merely thrown together. Little is said of Aliss’s application process, whether this was by way of a card in a supermarket noticeboard or some obscure online discovery. Maybe a friend of a friend mentioned Sigurd was looking for help. This adds to the style and pace of the book, the less one knows the more the reader can use their imagination to suggest how these two found out about each other. Again, this adds to the overall mystery of the book along with the fantastic descriptions of the isolated but beautiful location.
While the Bird Tribunal of the title is basically a kangaroo court which is shown in flash back when Sigurd is abducted by a group of people at night who are all wearing bird masks. They want him to atone for something that happened in the past. The book also delves heavily in to Norse folklore with the main characters discovering their liking for Norse history and gods.
This is 33-year-old Ravatn’s fifth book, the Norwegian born author is also a columnist on the weekly Nynorsk newspaper Dag Og Tid. Her other books were Week 53 (Veke 53)2007, Standingstill (Stillstand) 2011, Popular Reading (Folkelesnad) 2011 and Operation Self-Discipline (Operasjon Sjisiplinold) 2014. the Bird Tribunal was made into a successful stage play in 2015 and is also being made into a film. On top of that it was announced at the beginning of December the book will be BBC Radio 4’s Book At Bedtime between January 23rd – 29th.
It is often a complaint of the book group that the average sized books we read are missing the touch of an excellent editor. Here we are shown by another great Norwegian writer that great stories don’t need to be hidden inside a plethora of padding in large tomes. So, if you are looking for something to read by the fire over Christmas or during your precious reading time over the dark winter months pull on your best Scandinavian jumper and get into this cracking and little read from Agnes Ratvn.