The Ninth Step

Ingvi Þór Kormáksson works as a librarian in Reykjavik’s City Library and is well known as a musician and a songwriter, with eleven albums to his credit, and more than 160 of his compositions recorded by various artists, and featuring jazz, bossanova, blues, samba rhythms with occasional folk music traditions. His passion for literature and music are clearly depicted in his writing as he includes details, moods and snippets of musical information that would have been familiar to many Icelanders who had paid special attention to new styles coming to their country.

In 2009, his short story Hlidarspor / Sidetracked won the 2009 Gaddakylfa (`Mace’), an award given by the Icelandic Crime Fiction Association for the year’s best crime fiction story. That was the sixth time that Mace was awarded. Following year, the story was published in his first book, collection of fifteen short stories called Raddir ur fjarlaegd / Voices in the Distance, focusing on tales of the everyday life, often revisiting the past.

I had an opportunity to listen to the author discussing his writing at the first panel of the international IcelandNoir crime fiction festival in Reykjavik in 2016, where the writer, translator and festival co-founder Quentin Bates introduced the Icelandic authors whose books haven’t been translated into English yet. Ingvi Thor Kormáksson discussed literary things with Óskar Guðmundsson, Hildur Sif Thorarensen and Kristján Atli Ragnarsson. Since then The Ninth Step by Ingvi Þór Kormáksson in Larissa Kyzer’s English translation has finally appeared. It is an interesting dark novel, full of angry undertones, regret but also understanding and sensitivity, and deep desire to belong.

As a tale of forgiveness and vengeance The Ninth Step explores the emotional and physical extremes in relation to taking revenge on tormentors decades later. Hurt and humiliation had profound lasting effect not only on two boys but in a twisty horrendous way had damaged lives of other people, too. Conversation of two recovering alcoholics, probably in their forties, punctuated by musings and memories, allows for setting of social background and brining flashbacks explaining some of the has been happening.

The unnamed narrator reflects on his life, relatively carefree childhood in a small fishing village on the western coast of Iceland, in the shadow and presence of a magnificent glacier. He weaves recollections of reality of harsh but simple existence in stunning location, the impact of powerful scenery in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and contrasting urban rock’n’roll years. The paths of Egill, the novel’s main character, and of the narrator cross as these two men had known each other as teens. For some reason Egill must confide in his old friend, especially as recent events weigh heavily on his heart and consciousness.

As a young man Egill spent his time playing, singing, drinking and trying to work out where he had belonged in a changing social landscape of Iceland. He tried his luck while living and playing music in Sweden which he has later abandoned, leaving his girlfriend and their young son. Jobs in fish factories in Faroe Islands didn’t bring much satisfaction. Return to Iceland resulted in a daily struggle just to survive, mostly on a strong cocktail of alcohol and drugs. His health declining, depression taking hold, and self-contempt overwhelming. ‘My life reminded me of a manuscript from which whole chapters have been lost.’ Yet something hidden in the depths of his psyche, something very traumatic, had forced him to seek professional help and go to rehab. And then he had found love. But what he wants to describe during an uncomfortable conversation is the growing suspicion that the tragic accidental death of his girlfriend, and then further mysterious deaths might be linked though police doesn’t think so. Pressure builds up as the ostensibly unrelated victims are connected to him.

His story appears disjointed which is no surprise as he still reels from the most fresh events, and harbours doubts and suspicions that might seriously implicate him. The narration moves between time frames and different persons who got caught up in situations, sometimes unconsciously. This stylistic method suits the confessional approach of the book.

The narrator states his opinion on misapplication of the ninth step, an important part of the alcoholics’ journey to recovery: ‘Egill mastered his courage and tried to atone, to confess, but it backfired. The twelve steps must be taken with care and you’ve got to weight and evaluate the circumstances in each instance – whether there’s a good enough reason to embark upon them even though you might think that you’re prepared to go through that sort of confessional process’. However, readers know nothing of his own battle with alcohol, apart early memories of teenage drinking, and again cannot judge the circumstances and consequences.

Through pulling the strands of experiences told from several perspectives Ingvi Þór Kormáksson’s novel comes to a poignant unexpected finale which leaves the big unanswered question in its wake. Is it possible to atone for an awful act of violence and be forgiven for inexcusable actions? Does it help to understand motives, reasons, personal pain? Can blind following of the process save your own soul and sanity? Read tense The Ninth Step to make up your mind.

Snæfellsnes Peninsula 

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