I’m absolutely delighted to start the blog tour for The Commandments / Boðorðin penned by the Icelandic author Óskar Guðmundsson and published by Corylus Books. Let me say a couple of things first.
The contrast between two faces of Guðmundsson is incredible. I was lucky to meet him at several book festivals and was taken by his friendly charming manner, and a huge smile that never left his face. People are drawn to him. And I believe this appealing mixture of warmth, compassion and openness to the world shaped his other face as a confident writer of compelling crime fiction. The Commandments is Guðmundsson’s third book which reached a bestseller status in Iceland when published in 2019, focusing on difficult issues that do not often appear in the newspapers and therefore provoke controversy within the Church as well as in society as a whole. The compact yet powerful novel left me speechless and shaken at the disturbing story that had been hidden deep in the memories and experiences of the main characters. The absolutely masterful manner of weaving different threads into a rich tense and ultimately redeeming tale of trying to deal with guilt and forgiveness.
Secondly, under no circumstances sneak a peek at the book’s final pages. I know how tempting this can be, particularly as The Commandments has layers of truth that need to be found. Savour the challenging journey of discovery, enjoy the unravelling of emotions.
At the heart of plot is the strong desire to shine the light on abuse that was going on for a very long time, with the awkward convenient consent of the small local community. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise given the perception of people who seem not to fit or who threaten the status quo. People who come from dysfunctional families, people who are neglected. Add to this sense of protecting own sense of security within a tightly knit neighbourhood, and list of subjects that should not be discussed. Peace of mind, conformity and all that. However, that peace turned into an illusion long ago when youngsters instead of being supported, fell prey of the people in power.
It all starts with vanishing of a troubled teenager in 1995 who was last seen talking with a priest outside an Akureyri church. Nineteen years later it seems that Anton is just some uncomfortable ghost memory. Nobody talks.
Salka Steinsdóttir, a former police officer and a young woman re-evaluating own life in view of private trauma, returns to the north of Iceland to appease her demons. Although her parents live quite close, she is not ready to discuss very personal issues with them. As she tries to enjoy fly fishing in the stunning surroundings of a river at Laxá she meets a charismatic police officer Magnus who is also after tranquillity and big fish. Sadly, the calm is shattered as she’s called to step in and begin inquiry into the horrific murder of a local priest in nearby town of Grenivík. Soon she finds herself in the hardest investigation of her life when realising that she had pursued the victim earlier in her career. The case into abuse was shelved but dark reputation of the now dead man never left her. Then another horrendous murder comes to light: a deacon was found crucified in his home in Akureyri. At both crime scenes the murderer left a single message. Convinced that the killer is probably seeking a revenge, she has no doubts that lives of other people connected to the institution of Church are in danger. Ten Commandments should not be misinterpreted, isn’t it so? As she pursues all possible links and considers matters with her colleagues who are not keen to delve into the past, she realises that Anton’s disappearance played a much bigger role than anyone had assumed.
The emotional impact of the earlier events cannot be overlooked, and Salka recognises how many of her new acquaintances have been drawn into the murky history for various reasons. That process of discovery leaves her doubting both the legal system and the social morals.
Salka is a fantastically written heroine fit for the modern times, full of fire in her belly and deep desperate sadness. She demonstrates her professional skills during the investigation with determination and grit even if her decisions create conflict and make her position within the new team on shaky ground, especially as though she’s a detective inspector, here she doesn’t work in her official capacity. Her fragility and sense of justice are a potent mix that push her outside comfort zone.
Through the creation of the main characters and victims of the long-term sexual abuse Guðmundsson poses many tough questions which resonate with people. He does not judge nor explain but infuses the story with enough empathy to understand some skewed motives of the perpetrators. Distorted moral compass in the quiet North and the unspoken refusal to admit that so-called pillars of society are responsible.
Sensitive translation by Quentin Bates, renowned for his own writing as well as bringing several excellent Icelandic books to the English-reading world, is superb as it invokes every feeling, doubt and suspicion. The narration really does flow through emotional highs and lows, and the sharp, perfectly constructed prose never loses its momentum. In fact, it does grabs your attention and holds in a tight tense grip until the poignant heart-wrenching finale. With The Commandments a new thrilling star has finally shown his true colours in English. Welcome to the exciting crime fiction firmament, Óskar Guðmundsson!