Choosing favourite books is always a tricky business. How do you look back at the last twelve months and decide to list a small fraction of books that had left huge impression and unforgettable images, made you question some issues, pushed you into uncomfortable yet interesting territories, or transported you to a totally different world.
My reviews have been published in three places, and my reading habits do not always follow the noise of freshly published novels hitting the virtual or real shelves, nor the current promotional campaigns. Which means I am yet to read the sensational releases of 2020. Below is a selection of six titles that made me stop, gasp or think extra hard. Some have been published in 2019. All are excellent in their styling, narration, themes and impact.
First two novels are from Iceland, both translated by Quentin Bates.
Betrayal by Lilja Sigurðardóttir is a superbly constructed political thriller depicting 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 fans of Iceland would like to believe. The author paints a full picture of Úrsula, a complex troubled woman suffering from PTSD and evaluating own life, strained relationship with her husband, and effects of alcoholism and homelessness on her family. Suddenly thrown into the world of politics she must deal with numerous challenges while trying to maintain the position of a well-meaning beacon of change. The sense of betraying and being betrayed does not leave main players in the novel. 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.
In The Fox by Sólveig Pálsdóttir’s passion for life and art merges elements of Nordic and Eastern culture and folklore, and places them in the contemporary reality of the contrast between native Icelanders and immigrants. She writes passionately and with verve, weaving fascinating strands of modern harsh realism and ethereal atmosphere into a captivating psychological portrait of individuals locked into isolation, trauma and mental health. Her understanding for the main characters shines throughout the novel, with the titular chained fox representing physical shackles and restrains of the mind. The novel combines two perspectives of events seen by Sajee, from Sri Lanka, coming from a culture of respecting reincarnation and holy men, and with clear distinction between good and evil spirits, and detective Guðgeir, who although demoted, disappointed with himself and feeling far away from Reykjavik, takes Sajee’s peculiar situation seriously and embarks on an unofficial search when he realises that the woman might be missing. He essentially believes in another human being.
From Finland comes Deep as Death by Katja Ivar, as Detective Hella Mauzer fired from the police and trying to survive as a private investigator, searches for a serial killer who might have been responsible for several deaths, including those of local prostitutes. She is stubborn as hell, and a misunderstood feminist ahead of the times, in the chilling post-war climate, while struggling with personal demons. The story itself could be regarded as the manual of perfectly executed manipulation, a truly masterful art of deception handbook where the main player scrupulously justifies every single step while everyone else tries either to survive or to climb the rickety social ladder. Obviously Hella is not the Machiavellian princess here as she blunders through the investigation in Helsinki, constrained by own loneliness and despair to be loved, and by the tough circumstances of Finnish life in the 1950s. This fine psychological thriller fits firmly in the Nordic Noir sphere, bringing together all elements of the chilling genre and weaving in the private links and social issues. Fighting against crime and prejudices continue.
Two voices from Norway represent different eras.
The Iron Chariot by Stein Riverton was first published more than 110 years ago, and in 2017 was voted the greatest Norwegian crime novel of all time by Norway’s crime writers’ association, inspiring creation of the Riverton Prize. The classic story set on an idyllic holiday island where hotel guests enjoy long summer days under the midnight sun, is told by an unnamed narrator, a young man extremely sensitive to the changes in the weather and in the social atmosphere. Two murders later, a detective, Asbjørn Krag, summoned from the capital, starts an investigation. The violent events occurring in quick succession do not surprise the locals, as many believe in the legend of the ghostly iron chariot that rambles aimlessly through the plains and along the rugged coast, announcing tragic deaths. Despite its age Jernvognen does not feel dated as Lucy Moffatt’s seamless contemporary translation, true to the original style, renders with clarity the atmospheric, almost gothic, setting.
Much more recent is I Will Miss You Tomorrow by Heine Bakkeid, translated by Anne Bruce. A damaged ex-Chief Inspector Thorkild Aske has just left prison, his life in tatters but was asked to find a young man, Rasmus, who has disappeared off the North Norwegian coast. Rasmus is the cousin of Frei, the woman that Thorkild still loves but whom he has accidently killed. The book introduces a complex man who against all odds and very questionable choices seems likeable enough for the reader to feel for him. It was truly a tense experience waiting to find out whether he would survive the psychological torments, physical agony and the freezing waters of the dangerous Arctic seas. This damaged ‘hero’ reminds me so much of Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole, hated alike by serial killers he had pursued and his own colleagues, yet loved by many women and readers worldwide. As Thorkild seems to evoke similar reactions, I can only admire the author’s exceptional and engaging writing in his first venture into crime fiction.
And last but not least: FrenchNoir. Wild Dog by Serge Joncour, in translation by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh, an intense and truly philosophical thriller. Travelling through time, it seamlessly binds together the varied yet similar life experiences of people in an untouched location in the Auvergne region of France. The suspense seeps from each exquisitely crafted sentence, taking the reader into a world replete with complex emotional and moral dilemmas. Both a semi-practical guide to self-preservation and a homage to space and calm, it is also a grand metaphor for the human condition, asking the eternal question: what makes us different from the animals? The narrative alternates between three weeks in August 2017 and events in the summer of 1914. The pervading heat, the sense of impending doom, and the confrontation with their primal fears all serve to blur the lines between the characters’ intellectual and visceral understandings of life, and therefore our own. Wild Dog’s richness of thought, its layered narrative strands and its tense undercurrents make it a raw, brutal and magnificent literary experience.
Happy New Year 2021! Here’s to more brilliant books!