JONASSON’S FIFTH IS CHILLING, BUT COMES ACROSS SLIGHTLY RUSHED

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whiteout_new_coverIf like me you’ve been residing in the northern hemisphere for the past six months, you are probably tiring of the long drawn out winter we are currently experiencing. Even now, as I write this in the latter part of April, I’m still wearing a padded jacket and gloves in the mornings when heading to work or going out in the evenings.  We are, at this stage in the year, sick to the back teeth of the Beast From The East, The Pest From The West and The Son Of The Beast, three storms that have dumped large amounts of snow  and freezing temperatures across the UK and Ireland in the past ten weeks. Here is Ireland at the height of the cold snap in February; the country shut down for nearly a week and there was a run on bread!!!!! Yes, I kid you not.  Unlike our Nordic neighbours and our north American and Canadian cousins, we are not good in snow. While our Icelandic neighbours, to the north, experience snow and sub -zero temperatures on a regular basis. This brings me to this month’s book review, its White Out by Ragnor Jonasson. Published Orenda Books (www.orendabooks.com)  in November 2017.

Two days before Christmas the body of a young girl is found at the base of the cliffs near an all but deserted village in the far north of the island. In fact, the only inhabitants are two middle aged siblings who are housekeepers for a local family whose large house stands atop a remote rocky alongside a large monolith of a lighthouse. They are also keepers for the lighthouse. With Christmas rapidly approaching and the snow relentlessly falling, Ari Thor Arason a young police detective is called by his ex-boss to accompany him to this desolate part of the island to help investigate the case. This throws Ari and his expectant fiancée Kristin’s plans for a family Christmas awry. As Kirstin wants to talk to a local man about her great grandfather, she sees it as a way of killing two birds with one stone.  When he arrives in Kalfshamarvik, Aria soon discovers that the girl’s younger sister and mother, also died at the same spot.  Then one of the witnesses who last saw the girl alive, is found dead. With ghost stories, family intrigue, the snow and early arrival of his first child hampering his investigation Ari has to find the killer before they strike again. Ari has his hands full on this investigation.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie (Star Tribune)

This isn’t the first Ragnor Jonasson book we’ve reviewed here at The Library Door. We liked his style of writing then and although I didn’t review the book myself at that time, I thoroughly loved this outing featuring his young detective. Ragnor paints a vivid and dramatic picture of this wild and beautiful land, with its green but also harsh landscapes. Set against this back drop the book moves fluidly and as I was reading in the midst of our bleak winter, I felt immersed in the story. This is not really a beach read as you’d never feel immersed in the fierce, driving wind and blinding snow, which add to the list of things hampering Ari’s investigation.

This is a book to be read, on the west coast of Ireland or up in the Scottish Highlands, when the wind is howling and the rain driving against the window and all you want is to be inside with a roaring fire.

This is Icelandic author Jonasson’s fifth book, his others include Snowblind, Blackout,

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Ragnor Jonasson

Rupture and The darkness. He started writing from an earlier age at 17 he translated fourteen Agatha Christie Novels into Icelandic. This novel has a nod to Agatha Christie, with its limited suspect list and remote house location. He currently lives in Reykjavik with his wife and family, where he works and a lawyer.

The book is quite short at almost 210 pages, but the one things I did feel was a slight mark against this read, was that the case seems to get wrapped up pretty quickly once his young son arrives, as if Jonason ran out of steam at that point. But on a whole it’s a good read written by a true master of Icelandic dark noir. So, if you haven’t read an Ari Thor Arason mystery yet, then get down to your local book shop or download a copy and start reading, before his ninth book The Darkness is published later this year.

DARK, SMOULDERING AND CHILLING IT MAYBE. BUT JONASSONS THIRD BOOK SETS OFF MY LITERARY AQUAPHOBIA

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black-out-cvrCan you remember where you were between the 15th-21st April 2010, yes I know its a long time ago, but go on try to remember…If I said Eyjafjallajokull… No, I’m not swearing at you, but that word or similar sounding expletives were on the tip of quite a few European tongues that week in 2010.  That was when a little known Icelandic volcano, until then that is, decided to erupt and the ensuing ash cloud grounded the European air traffic system, stranding over 10 million people worldwide and costing the airline industry $1.7 billion in lost revenue. That volcano, yes the one no one with out a large bottle Brennivin inside them can pronounce, plays a central role in this months second  book, titled Black Out by  Ragnar Jònasson  published by Orenda Books (www.orendabooks.co.uk) in July 2016.

When  man is killed at a remote cottage in Northern Iceland.  Detective Ari Thór Arason a troubled and complex small town policemen  and his colleagues start to investigate the crime. Was the man the intended victim? What kind of man was he? Why was he killed? Throw into the mix a reporter with secrets of her own, along with the convoluted lives of the investigating officers, their relatives and former lovers and you have a complex plot that’s even murkier without the added bonus of the ever present ash cloud.

This was my first foray into the series and almost my first exposure to Nordic Noir. Noir is certainly the word. As a lover of thrillers both crime and psychological since my early teens, somewhat foolishly I took this book as holiday reading on a sunny beach holiday. Not a good choice. This book needs a dark winter evening, in front of a roaring fire, with something stronger than cocoa, maybe Brennivin, the Icelandic Schnapps often referred to as the Black death.

Set during the 24 hour light of an Arctic summer you might think this book would inspire

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Eyjafjallajokull erupting in 2010

you with wonderful descriptions of the Icelandic scenery. However, this is the period of the volcanic eruption and ash cloud . The cloud is shutting out the sun in Reykjavik and making life depressingly claustrophobic for the Icelanders who have endured the dark winter. I found this coloured the whole book. It was unremittingly dark and depressing. Not surprising for crime fiction you might say but even the parallel character plots were depressing. The most interesting character for me was Isrun, a young reporter. Her character is pivotal to moving the plot forwards and the representation of the cutthroat world of TV news, whilst not original, seemed realistic.

Everyone was miserable, suicidal or just downright nasty. When I say ‘everyone’, there were a lot of characters and a lot of threads, at least one of which, seemed to me unnecessary.  However as this is the second of a series of linked novels, I appreciate some characters and storylines may be revisited and fleshing out of characters and laying the base of future plots could be required. I lost patience with the book several times but picked it up again and was eventually rewarded with the ‘hook’ which finally ignited my interest half way into the book. For myself, a hint of this or the reveal itself coming a little earlier would have invested me much more.  Maybe Noir fans prefer the slow burn? I certainly found it confusing, having to turn back or reread to work out who people were etc. Not a book I’d recommend for the Kindle so!

 

This is Ragnar Jónasson’s (www.ragnar-jonasson.squarespace.com) 3rd book to be translated into English, his  debut novel Snowblind was published to crital aclaim in 2015 followed closely by Nightblind in the same year. There are two more english translations scheduled for publication in 2017, they atre Breathless and Ruptiure.

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Ragnor Jonasson

 

Before beginning to write his own stories,  Jónnason translated Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic and founded  a crime writers festival in Iceland. I was hoping for some hint of Christie here. Reviews of ‘Snowblind’ referenced Jonasson as a modern Christie.  He has obviously spent a long time honing his characters and plot lines for a series of books. I could also easily see a TV series. I was hoping to dip my toe into Nordic Noir with this book but in the end I found it too cold and bleak to take the plunge into the whole Fjord.

But if series like Fortitude (which didn’t get me either) are your thing, then get your togs or thermal swimsuit on and dive right in.

 

Reviewed by Georgina Murphy

BURIAL RITES IS A POWERFUL DEBUT NOVEL BY AN AUTHOR FROM DOWN UNDER, SET IN THE HARSH GREEN WASTES OF ICELAND

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BURIAL-RITES CVRSitting out in the Atlantic almost aloof from the rest of the continent at the northerly tip of Europe, is the island of Iceland. Despite what the name suggests, Ice is scarce compared to it’s neighbour Greenland.  Another rarity in Iceland is Crime, according to a report by a global study on homicide published 2011 by the UN, Iceland’s homicide rate never went above 1.8 per 100,000 head  of population annually over a  ten year period between 1999-2009. Thus it took an Antipodean, to delve into the annals of Icelandic history to find a crime with an interesting tale. That’s this months book – Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (www.hannahkentauthor.com).

Iceland, 1828. A closed rural society governed from far-off Denmark. Two men are murdered on a remote farm and their bodies partially burnt. The shock vibrates throughout the whole country.  An example must be made of the murderers. They must be executed. One of them is Agnes Magnusdottir, a 33-year-old maid-cum-farmhand.

There is no executioner or executioner’s axe in Iceland. A blacksmith is commissioned to make the axe. A farmer must be trained to carry out the beheadings. Meanwhile, Agnes is lodged with a crofter’s family (there are no prisons in Iceland, either) – a family who does not at all welcome the idea of having a murderess in their midst.

Based on these actual events, “Burial Rites” tells Agnes’ story.

Historically, Agnes Magnusdottir was the last woman to be executed in Iceland for the murder of her employer and lover,

Natan Ketilsson, and a farmhand, Petur Jonsson.  The murders and the subsequent execution of Agnes and one of her co-accused, Fridrick Sigurdsson, are knitted into Icelandic history and folklore with Agnes generally being portrayed as “an inhumane witch, stirring up murder”. In writing this novel, Hannah Kent set out to “supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman”. In this she succeeds admirably.

Reconstructed from historical documents and re-envisaged, Hannah Kent’s Agnes was born the illegitimate daughter of a servant girl. At age six her mother left her with “A lie for a father. A head of dark hair.  A kiss. A stone so that I might learn to understand the

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Agnes’s Final Resting Place

birds and never be lonely”.  At age eight her foster mother died in childbirth and she was “thrown on the mercy of the parish….a pauper. Left to the mercy of others whether they had any or no”. At fourteen, the confirmation records of the parish describe her as having “an excellent intellect” – an intellect that Agnes subsequently decries as being responsible for her predicament. “If I was young and simple-minded, do you think everyone would be pointing at me? No. They’d blame it on Fridrick ….But they see I have a head on my shoulders, and believe a thinking woman cannot be trusted. Believe there’s no room for innocence”.

Be that as it may, it was undoubtedly Agnes’ intelligence that attracted the attentions of Natan Ketilsson, the murder victim.  Agnes fell in love when Ketilsson, a notorious non-conformist and freethinker, singled her out while visiting a farm where she worked because “he could not read me”.  Having become lovers, Ketilsson asked Agnes to move to his farm as a housekeeper. On her arrival, however, she realized that another servant girl, 15-year-old Sigga, was already installed as housekeeper – and in Nathan’s bed! Was it rage and jealousy at this that drove her to stab Ketilsson when the opportunity presented itself? Or, as she insisted, was it Fridrick that killed him and forced her (and Sigga, who’s sentence was commuted to life in prison) to set the fire to cover it up? We are left with this ambiguity.

While Agnes’ story is compelling, the way Kent unfolds it makes it truly absorbing.  We gradually glean all of this while Agnes is spending her last months working on the small-holding of District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife Margrét and daughters Lauga and Steina.  In the cramped living space of their croft – where everybody, including Agnes and the farmhands, sleep in a communal ‘badsofa’ – little can be kept private. So it is that Agnes’ conversations with her confessor, Toti, a pastor nominated to “prepare her for her meeting with the Lord” are largely overheard.

Initially horrified, the family gradually soften towards Agnes, realizing that, far from being a dangerous criminal, she is very much a product of the harsh, subsistence-living, farming community that they share. Little-by-little, as Agnes displays her skills at farming and domestic chores and as they hear her story, their dismay dissolves, first into pragmatic acceptance “just as well we’ve an extra pair of woman’s hands about the place” and then to respect, compassion and kindness. Particularly poignant is the description of Margrét, the night before the execution, laying out her best clothes for Agnes to wear in the morning.

Throughout, the narrative is interspersed with vivid descriptions of the wild Icelandic landscape, the harsh weather and the hardships of the community’s subsistence existence. All of which serve to convey a bleak and unforgiving backdrop against which the humanity of the main characters shine.

Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent

By any yardstick, “Burial Rites” is an exceptional novel. Exceptional in its intelligent exposition of the characters and their interaction. Exceptional in its evocative descriptions of Icelandic landscape, culture and social history.  Exceptional in the sureness and confidence of the writing.

What makes this truly astonishing is that (1) Hannah Kent is Australian (2) this is her first novel and (3) she was 28 when it was published and – as you can see from her photograph – she looks 18. Eat your hearts out all aspiring writers (Don’t you just HATE her!). I suspect we’ll be reading a lot more from Ms Kent in the future – a wonderful prospect!