Reykjavik Noir trilogy consisting of Snare (2017), Trap (2018) and Cage(2019) introduced the English-speaking readers to Lilja Sigurðardóttir, the Icelandic author and screenwriter daring to venture into the dangerous territory of the contemporary Iceland and creating exciting fictional yet credible reality. Iceland of her design is a place distant from the shiny image of the traveller paradise, famous for Aurora Borealis, glaciers, whales, sharks and puffins. Snow does not offer reprieve nor the happy relaxed atmosphere of a tourist Northern Mecca. She takes on financial crash and its consequences, drug smuggling, hints of true-life menace, uncompromising female protagonists, excellent portrayal of the main LGBT heroine, superb characterisation, and various aspects of love, all themes wrapped up in a breathtakingly thrilling storytelling. We wanted more.
The translator extraordinaire Quentin Bates is again behind bringing sharp sparkly intense Icelandic sentences into English in the latest novel Betrayal which presents yet another view of Iceland. The succinct description is intriguing:
Burned out and traumatised by her horrifying experiences around the world, aid worker Úrsula has returned to Iceland. Unable to settle, she accepts a high-profile government role in which she hopes to make a difference again.
But on her first day in the post, Úrsula promises to help a mother seeking justice for her daughter, who had been raped by a policeman, and life in high office soon becomes much more harrowing than Úrsula could ever have imagined. A homeless man is stalking her – but is he hounding her, or warning her of some danger? And why has the death of her father in police custody so many years earlier reared its head again?
As Úrsula is drawn into dirty politics, facing increasingly deadly threats, the lives of her stalker, her bodyguard and even a witch-like cleaning lady intertwine. Small betrayals become large ones, and the stakes are raised ever higher…
The superbly constructed political thriller depicts personal traumas and deeply buried painful secrets. In the process of analysing how various people deal with making difficult decisions it also delivers a critique of the society which might not be as perfect as we, fans of Iceland, would like to believe. However, as Sigurðardóttir casts her eye on the local matters such as rejection of a popular road proposal, or the serious naming committee focused on traditional children’s names, she puts these topics in much wider context. Úrsula becomes a centre point for various agendas, a well-meaning beacon of change; nevertheless, she is unable to fulfil all demands. She is after all a complex troubled woman suffering from PTSD and evaluating own life, strained relationship with her husband Nonni, and effects of alcoholism and homelessness on her family. Sudden thrust into the public scene brings numerous challenges. The sense of betraying and being betrayed does not leave her as she must face power games, political intrigues and accusations. It also applies to others who come to contact with her. Gunnar, the bodyguard repressing own emotions; Stella, the cleaner with penchant for witchcraft; homeless Pétur, terrified of Devil presenting himself in human form. Diverse cast of characters propel the story into a stunning finale while providing basis for the nuanced analysis of deceit in many guises: personal, political, social. Damaged lives and consequences of taking tough choices, or lack of, are treated sensitively, with compassion. The incredibly clever interpretation of actions into a flowing narration makes is attractive to readers of different criminal tastes.
The author applies her musings of daily life (using Tinder app, sharing a cigarette, disposing of sensitive documents) and masterfully weaves them into bigger issues, shaping a story that could have been quite an ordinary, into something unique and very special that resonates on many levels. It crosses the boundaries and travels into the sphere of global attention, and makes us realise that geographical distance of the country does not make it impossible to be fully engaged in international matters. The role of women is never underestimated in Sigurðardóttir’s books, yet she is fully aware of the chronic misogyny in the world she wants to capture and portray.
I make no apologies for singing Sigurðardóttir’s paeans, and will do it again when another book appears. Her work is immersed in Icelandic literary tradition, with the insight into the huge impact of influential Nobel Prize winning novel Independent People by Halldór Laxness on the country’s psyche. At the same time her own understanding of seeing the world and opening to the new experiences add original voice to the exclusive group of Icelandic authors established outside Iceland. Her creative output increases in strength and variety, while her international attraction continues to grow. This is good. Stunning powerful storytelling with a razor-sharp edge, fast-paced and tense narration and utterly modern style is what we need to enjoy and appreciate.
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