Walpurgis Tide by Jógvan Isaksen

Jógvan Isaksen’s Walpurgis Tide was originally published in 2005 but the first introduction of the author and his writing into the English-speaking world came in 2016 thanks to the translator John Keithsson and Norvik Press. I always read forewords and translators’ notes if there are included in any book. They often provide insight into the background of the main story and also into the nature of the language which in turn make it more intriguing for me. Though the thriller Walpurgis Tide is gripping from the very suspenseful first pages and would not require any further encouragement. A couple of young British environmental activists are found dead, with their throats cut, among the massive carcasses of slaughtered whales. This has happened during the controversial grindadráp, an annual whale hunt, a bloody and terrifying event. The hunt is a centuries-old Faroese tradition, part of the national identity for people who have lived on these remote wild islands in the North Atlantic. The hunts are also notorious for stoking the fire of the international disputes, with violent and brutal aftermath.

The Faroese journalist Hannis Martinsson believes that hunting for these huge mammals in such a way will have to end soon, especially as the whales themselves are so polluted with heavy metals that their meat and blubber are toxic. The traditional food is becoming poisonous. Yet as a Faeroese he cannot ignore the fact that fishing industry makes a lot of money that could be lost if boycotted by other countries.

Hannis has just returned to his country after years of living abroad, mostly in Denmark, and isn’t quite sure what to do with his life and how to earn a living. He rents a small office in a building that has seen better days but has an advantage of being in a very central location in the capital city of Tórshavn. While Hannis repaints his office and considers a vague career as a consultant, writing for the foreign magazines and newspapers, he also decides to keep away from the international storms which always follow news of grindadráp. Alas, that’s not on the cards. A strange overconfident British man Mark Robbins asks him to investigate a double murder of two victims, Jenny McEwan and Stewart Peters who were sent on behalf of his organisation, the Guardians of the Sea to observe the hunt and gather information with an aim to get it banned. Extremely reluctantly Hannis takes on the assignment and as well as the money, as Robbins presents him with a threat to destroy the country if the murderer is not found, with the repercussions that would also reach Denmark. He begins the undercover investigation; however, within hours his new employer is dead. Hannis works both methodically and chaotically, chasing names and connections, and trying not to get killed in the process. The mystery leads him to discovery of more bodies, and foreigners involved in the fishing industry, and a very personal revelation.

Faroe Islands are mysterious and romantic, stunningly raw and beautiful and deadly dangerous, traditional and modern. An uncharted territory and a dream destination for the modern travellers. As a self-governing autonomous Danish territory (I hope I got it right) their citizens veer between firmly sticking to the ancient Norse customs and rules, and looking into the European future, while gambling with some potential oil-riches. They have a complicated relationship with Denmark so there’s no surprise that Hannis is often on the receiving end of the animosity felt by those who never venture from the islands, and insulted as a Dane-lover. Isaksen creates an authentic relatable portrait of a man who sees his home country from the outside perspective, and thanks to his experiences abroad, this view if full of sharp ironic observations, as well as timid love. Hannis appears to be an old cynic, world-weary and disillusioned when it comes to his career and personal relationships yet full of dark sarcastic humour and brilliant insights into the tight-knight society: ‘Choir singing is like one of the plagues of Egypt. You can’t take a step without hearing choir singing […] Have the nerve to turn a radio on, and you’ll have four-part harmony thrown in your face.’ He even feels ‘the primal instincts of a hunter; an intoxicating feeling of the joy of life amid the slaughter’ when at sea. He regrets never getting married, smokes indoors, drinks too much, appreciates younger women but keeps a distance – and finally does return to his ex-girlfriend.

‘Yes, I was at church this morning. That’s why I’m in my confirmation suit. I don’t wear this every Sunday. But when a female priest comes to preach, and a good-looking one at that, you have to go to church. Also just to annoy those people who are against women priests […] Those bloody Danish priests that rush up here trying to ban women from preaching in God’s house. What on earth are they doing? Do they want us to become independent just to be free from them?’

I enjoyed Walpurgis Tide, its pace, engrossing style and richness of observations that make this thriller feel authentic and original. Having read Chris Ould’s Faroese trilogy set in Faroe Islands featuring an outsider with Faroese roots, and also David Hewson’s Devil’s Fjord where the hunt becomes a central event, akin to a predestined saga, I appreciate and am familiar with the tradition of the whale hunt, mood and atmosphere of the islands. Both authors’ evident fascination with the location inviting the stories to be told are hugely enjoyable, as well as tense and captivating. I read a comment saying that Ould’s books are better than Isaksen’s; however, I believe they are equally gripping; just told at different times and from different angles, and focusing on slightly different elements of the history and culture of this geographically distant nation.

I also feel that Hannis Martinsson could become one of my favourite reluctant heroes; similar to the Norwegian PI Varg Veum in his lone-wolf approach to dig deep into the hidden layers of truth, disturbing the superficial peace. Hannis is being shot, threatened and pursued by a mysterious sniper, and treated like a very annoying fly in the ointment by the local police. I am also very curious about Trom, based on four of Jógvan Isaksen’s novels which has just premiered on Nordic streamer Viaplay. Trom is the first ever TV series filmed in the Faroes, and created by screenwriter Torfinnur Jákupsson who has finally fulfilled his long term ambition. Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen takes the centre stage.

Translator John Keithsson worked from the original Faroese text and the Danish translation by the author. This method allowed him to fully bring both the story and social context into English, and to ensure that this unforgettable book was comprehensible for the readers outside the Nordic universe. He did a magnificent job.

2 thoughts on “Walpurgis Tide by Jógvan Isaksen

  1. It reminds me of the Black House by Peter May and the harvesting of the guga. A story, set on the Isle of Lewis, which though not Scandinavian is maybe not so far from the Faroe Isles.

    Walpurgis Tide sounds like a fascinating book, I will give it a go.


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