The Icelandic author Johan Thorsson’s take on Iceland’s unique and spectacular Christmas Book Flood.
‘There is this statistic about the Icelandic Book Flood that gets thrown about a bit and is maybe hard for people outside of Iceland to believe. Before we get to that, I think I should tell you just what the Icelandic Book Flood is.
Spoiler: it’s not a literal flood of books. Though that would be kind of great.
Iceland has the happy tradition during Christmas that people tend to give each other books as Christmas presents. Among the many holiday traditions around the world, few are as dear to me as the one we have about the giving of books during Christmas. It is very rare that there is not at least one book under the Christmas tree.
Now, publishers in Iceland realized this long ago so they put out most of their books in late October or early November. Bookstores are far busier during December than during any other month and the newspapers and media are filled with ads for books, interviews with authors, and reviews of the year’s hottest titles. This sudden massive craze about books during Christmas is what we refer to as the Christmas Book Flood.
And that statistic? I’ve heard that around 80% of book sales take place during Christmas.
This dates back to WWII (doesn’t everything) when there was a scarcity of most things in Iceland apart from books. Iceland also had a relatively high purchase capacity and the most readily available Christmas gift to buy just after the war was, through a combination of available imports, books.
Lucky for us.
And what books am Ithinking about this Christmas? I think that Shaun Tan’s amazing The Arrival is a book that is simply gorgeous and should be in every home.
Books by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Arnaldur Indriðason and Ragnar Jónasson will be under many trees this Christmas and I hope to find at least one of them in a present addressed to me. Eva Björg Ægisdóttir’s latest book is also intriguing. I am a sucker for the classics, however, and were I to select books for crime lovers this Christmas it would most likely be either Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon or Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River.’
Johann Thorsson’s first novel Whitesands, a supernatural thriller featuring Detective John Dark, was published by Headshot Books in September 2021. Here you can read more about Johann Thorsson and get his book Whitesands for the dark and utterly chilling winter evenings.
I asked author Gunnar Staalesen, the major figure in the Nordic Noir crime fiction genre, often called ‘the Norwegian Chandler’, and creator of the most famous fictional PI Varg Veum, to tell us about the way he and his family celebrate Jul / Christmas in his home town of Bergen, and also what Christmas celebration mean for his character Varg Veum.
Here is what Gunnar Staalesen says:
‘We celebrate Christmas with our children and grandchildren in a traditional way. In Norway Christmas Eve is the ‘big day’ when it comes to celebrating. How many we are together that day depends on when our children can celebrate with us, and when they can be with the daughters-in-law’s families. Since the other families live in other districts than the Bergen area, the days we spend together differ from year to year. If we are not together on Christmas Eve, we find another day!
In Norway Christmas is most of all a family celebration and it follows more or less the same pattern from year to year. When I was a child, we were a small family because both my father and mother came from other parts of the country. It was father, mother, my sister and me. Now the family has grown bigger in Bergen, too, with two grown up children with their wives, three grandchildren, and my sister and her family.
Around Noon on Christmas Eve we try to collect most of our own part of the family for a traditional serving of rice porridge. In one of the bowls there is an almond, and the winner of this get a present: both a chocolate and a toothbrush! After this we part for an hour or two while Christmas dinner is prepared. We do not watch much television on Christmas Eve but we try to see the Disney Christmas Cards every year, with the good old musical numbers that both grandparents and their children remember with pleasure from their own childhood, even if we – the grandparents – never had them on television but had to visit a cinema to see the films.
Usually, it is grandmother who prepares the dinner, while grandfather takes the rest of the family to Church for a Christmas service. When we return, the dinner will be more or less ready. The traditional Christmas dinner in our part of the country (the West) is pinnekjøtt, which are dried or smoked ribs of sheep, served with a stew made by potatoes and turnips, a very special course that most people only eat at Christmas time. For dessert we have the Norwegian berries that I believe are called cloudberries in English, served with sour cream. When dinner has been eaten, we prepare for coffee and small cakes, but now the little children are getting impatient. Around the Christmas tree they can see the gifts waiting for them. But before serving coffee and starting the opening of gifts, we go around the Christmas tree and sing the old Christmas carols. Then the rest of the evening is reserved for gift openings, small cakes, coffee and perhaps some stronger liquor, all in a pleasant atmosphere. If we are lucky, the snow is falling outside our windows, but since we live in Bergen, mostly it is rain, even on Christmas Eve. But we always dream of White Christmas, and every tenth year we are lucky…
On the first day of Christmas we come together again in our family to eat a specialty of the Bergen Kitchen, called prinsefisk, the Fish of Prince. It was served the first time when two princes visited Bergen in 1856 and is composed – with personal variations – of cod, shrimps, asparagus and peas in béchamel sauce with capers, served with cooked potatoes. Later in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve we may have pork ribs, deer or even turkey in some families. From the Viking ages this was the time of the year when you were eating well to celebrate the turn of the year, when the days started to become longer and we were turning towards spring and summer again. Well worth a celebration!
In the city of Bergen there are Christmas streets with a lot of lights, these years even a Christmas Market, and a lot of buildings – like the fronts of the old Bryggen – are decorated with light bulbs, bells, branches of spruce and other symbols for Christmas or Turn-of-the-year celebration.
So what about Varg Veum and his Christmas celebrations? As he is living alone, most of the Christmas Eves he is by himself, drinking his aquavit and eating his pinnekjøtt alone, I am afraid. Now that he has grandchildren In Oslo, I hope he is invited to visit his son Thomas and his family in the capital, but I am not quite sure if he accepts the invitation. He is always a lone wolf, even on Christmas Eve. Together with the British artist Mike Collins and the editor Arild Wærness, I made four graphic arts Christmas magazines about Varg Veum between 2013 and 2016 and a collection of them in 2017, short mysteries taking place in the time around Christmas. The first one of these was based on a short story I wrote about Varg Veum in the 80’s, when he works as a Santa Clause in a big shopping Centre in Bergen and solves a smaller mystery there.
Before I started the series about Varg Veum, I wrote three novels about two police officers in Bergen, called Dumbo and Maskefjes, and the second one of these was called The Man Who Hated Santa Clauses. That is the closest I come to describe Christmas in Bergen in my books. Most of the Varg Veum books take place in the dark autumn days of October or November, the frozen winter days in January or February, or other periods of the year when it is easier for Varg to concentrate on solving the mysteries then preparing the Christmas celebration that for him is almost non-existing.
Happy Christmas nevertheless, Varg!
See you later, this year, too…’
Gunnar Staalesen‘s latest Varg Veum novel Bitter Flowers, translated by Don Bartlett, is out on 20 January 2022, published by Orenda Books.
Sólveig Pálsdóttir loves The Book Title Game and Christmas would not be the same without it
‘When I was a child Iceland had only one TV station and one radio station, both run by the state broadcaster. The radio almost never played any popular music but mainly just symphonies. But there were also many beautifully produced programmes and every Thursday evening there was a drama. That was when we could hear the voices of our finest actors, and in many homes these were precious moments. There was no TV on Thursdays. Why? Well, because TV was considered to be a lower form of culture – even downright harmful. For these reasons the authorities ensured that Icelanders watched TV only six evenings a week from eight til eleven in the evening. There was no TV at all in July, as that’s when people were expected to take their holidays as a break from all that unhealthy screen time and spend their bright summer evenings outdoors. The state monopoly on TV and radio was finally abolished in 1985.
It’s in our nature to find what we see little of, or which is even forbidden, as particularly attractive. Practically everyone in Iceland watched the same programmes (which were normally a few years old by the time they reached us) such as American soap opera Dallas, or the British TV programme Upstairs, Downstairs. The day after some programme had been shown, there would be discussions in homes and workplaces over whether Sue Ellen had started drinking again, and whether or not she should divorce JR Ewing. Almost everyone had a strong opinion on the way these fictional characters lived their lives. Scarce TV material made even well-acted advertisements almost as popular as the programmes themselves. People learned the ads inside out, and some of these turned into popular classics.
The peak of the advertising fun was the weeks before Christmas because that’s when the books are published. Some of you have undoubtedly heard of Iceland’s Christmas book flood (Jólabókaflóð) when the majority of books are published between October and mid-December. These are hectic weeks as the advertising battle reaches its zenith. Around mid-November the Bókatíðindi (Book News) list is distributed to every home in the country, in which every single new book gets a short introduction. The arrival of Book News was always eagerly awaited, and there was nothing unusual about being familiar with all of the main titles and marking the ones that would make an acceptable gift with a cross.
It’s not just a tradition to give books as gifts in Iceland, but also large Christmas family gatherings are very widespread. I was brought up with three or four of these taking place every Christmas, and as well as eating well, dancing around the tree and singing together, there was always what we called the Book TitleGame.
The family divided into two or three groups, depending on how large the party was. In my family there were usually 40 to 50 people. Then each group would choose ten or so book titles to enact. The other groups had to guess the title and was given a set time to guess the answer. Turns were taken until one group or the other had amassed more points for their correct title guesses.
I don’t remember a Christmas without the Book Title Game being played, and it was always fun. Every age group took part, with the youngest acting out the titles of children’s books. This annual event, the Book Title Game, is one of my dearest childhood memories. I’m not sure that it would be possible to play the game these days. Instead of books being the ideal choice for a gift and each family member receiving five or six, now people generally receive just one book. This doesn’t mean that the Icelandic Christmas Book Flood is any less than it was but it’s now more common for people to buy their books earlier and read them in comfort during Advent. To my mind, this is an excellent tradition and there’s nothing that says Christmas like getting into a warm bed on Christmas night with the smell of dinner still in the air and a brand-new book in your hand.’
Sólveig Pálsdóttir’s first two novels translated into English (by Quentin Bates) The Fox and Silenced have been published by Corylus Books.
Today Einar Kárason shares his memories about Adventure at Christmas:
‘Books are the classic Icelandic Christmas gift and when I remember the excitement when I was eight or nine, and just starting to read for myself, of whether one of my sisters or I would get the newest Enid Blyton adventure. There were eight of them, The Island of Adventure, The Castle of Adventure, The Valley of Adventure, The Mountain of Adventure, and so on. Now these are seen as highly unfashionable and I think that cancel culture has been unkind to Enid Blyton’s legacy. Certainly they are startlingly old-fashioned and with a nostalgic atmosphere that harks back to the days of empire, with scant respect for more primitive people and cultures, and frequently the villains are of the dark-skinned variety. I recall a line in The Island of Adventure when someone asks who lives in a particular place and the reply was that there were ‘a man and a woman and a black servant.’
It’s understandable that such viewpoints aren’t any longer presented to children, although cancel culture itself and practically everything associated with it should be anathema to any reasonable person. You can never tell how far it will go. If we look back at human history over centuries and millennia, it’s clear to see that many of the biggest names in history, artists, philosophers, scientists and political leaders, all held views that today are seen as bad. They were racists, owned slaves, favoured the death penalty and despised other races… And what we could think or feel would be severely limited if all of that were to be on the banned list.
It’s a shame if people are no longer able to be familiar with works such as the Adventure series. These maybe weren’t groundbreaking books. Both the two boys and the two girls are somewhat stereotypical, and come from a higher class background. The jewel in the crown was the talking parrot, Kiki, and that wasn’t exactly a novelty as both Stevenson and Dafoe had given us talking parrots. But just like those masters before her, Enid Blyton had a knack of leading the reader into new territories, in such a way that you felt you got to know them and felt that you had been there, even if you were reading about them at home in a basement room in Reykjavík.
I’ve scaled Welsh mountains, know Scottish islands and the puffins that live in burrows there, I’ve spent time in Scottish castles and experienced the sight of eagles and foxes, and so many other places I was fortunate enough to get to know as a child, all because sometimes there would be one of Enid Blyton’s Adventure books under the Christmas tree.’
My review of Einar Kárason‘s Storm Birds translated by Quentin Bates and published by MacLehose Press in 2020.
Einar Kárason (born 1955 in Reykjavík), a novelist and one of the most popular author and scriptwriter of his generation, started his career writing poetry for literary magazines, and published his first novel in 1981. His novel Fury (2009) was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize and awarded the Icelandic Literary Prize. He is best known for his book Þar sem djöflaeyjan rís, which was translated into English as Devil’s Island (2000) and made into a film.
Djöflaeyjan / Devil's Island (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBCbVRpD_Yw) is a bitter sweet tale of Iceland in the fifties. Life is rough in Reykjavik's post-war slum of Camp Thule, where the abandoned US military barracks have been turned into makeshift homes. Struggling wives and their hard-working husbands try to make ends meet. The younger generation dreams of dollars, Rock'n'Roll and the American way of life. To celebrate or to drown their misery - they're never short of a good reason to booze. The film vividly depicts the everyday life of a wacky family, their neighbours and friends and shows how some of their dreams come true and others don't. Information via Icelandic Cinema.
Iceland is known for its mythology, folklore and tales, and the stunning otherworldly landscapes. It is also a country of writers and readers, bookworms and book dragons; and it prints more books per capita than any other country in the world, with over 50% of Icelanders reading more than eight books per year (but I don’t have the exact number). So of course, it seems that the best-loved Icelandic tradition revolves around reading. Jólabókaflóð, or Christmas flood of books, is a literary Christmas celebration that begins with the printing of a catalogue in mid-November and ends with the giving, receiving, and reading of new books on Christmas Eve. This fabulous tradition of giving books isn’t foreign to other places yet I don’t think there are words in other languages to reflect that so well.
During WW II paper was one of the few non-rationed luxuries at the time when any items to be given as gifts were costly and hard to find. Therefore, printing of books was affordable and accessible which in turn meant they became the best gifts for families to exchange during the festive period. Following the end of the war more luxuries became steadily available; however, the tradition remained and continues to be so cherished. As a staple on the Icelandic Christmas calendar, the annual Jólabókaflóð celebrations begin with the publishing and distribution of the Bókatíðindi. The catalogue of new publications from Publisher’s Association in Iceland is distributed for free in autumn to every home. This provides a wonderful opportunity to choose all types of books for family and friends, exchange literary presents on Christmas Eve and spend the rest of the evening and the very dark night getting lost in words, while enjoying some chocolate and sweet treats.
I’m delighted to hear from some writers who embrace Jólabókaflóð tradition, and Lilja Sigurðardóttir is the first person to share her experience of the Christmas book flood.
‘Christmas is and will always be associated with books in my mind. Iceland has a long-standing tradition of only publishing books before Christmas and it’s called the ‘Jólabókaflóð’ or Christmas-book-flood. So, October and November is all about books and authors are superstars, promoting their books everywhere; bookstores, library events, workplaces.
The tradition is that many bigger workplaces like offices, factories etc. have a special morning, lunchtime or afternoon break in November or December, that most often is longer than usual and some Christmas foods or cakes are served to the staff and an author or two read to them from their new book.
I find these workplace visits very cosy. Many times people have decorated the workplace canteen for the event and there might be candlelight or other mild light as the slumber of the Arctic darkness is all consuming at this time of year and it is nice to take a break from the bright office lights and relax into the natural darkness. Sometimes I have had to point my phone flashlight at my book to be able to read! And there the people sit quietly with their hot chocolate in hand and listen to you read. I might be wrong but I have a feeling these kinds of workplace events are very specifically Icelandic and exist within the whole tradition of the ‘Jólabókaflóð.’ They always fill me with a quiet joy and love for the Icelandic Christmas.’
I absolutely love the cold and cool IcelandNoir crime fiction festival. When I first came to Reykjavik in 2014, I immediately felt at home, as if I arrived at a place that will always be my safe refuge. Yes, it was still dark at ten o’clock in the morning, the brutal wind blew from the sea and the sky changed several times during the day to reflect the constant drama of the weather. But I love the Nordic shades of grey. There was snow and various lights everywhere, and the mysteries of elves, and books and writers. Since then, I travelled to Iceland about ten times, made friends for life, have been inspired by words, deeds and history, and again volunteered at the festival. Of course, now we live in complicated world, with the pandemic that hasn’t yet disappeared so until the very last moment it was not clear whether IcelandNoir would go ahead. Covid restrictions meant that several events had to be cancelled, the organisers had to make changes to the programme, a number of authors could not join,Jólabókaflóð (Christmas book flood) events for the local authors were postponed, and generally some of us felt like we have been in Reykjavik under cover. Running away. We weren’t. But the situation is still slightly unsettling.
IcelandNoir was born in 2013 over a curry in one of Reykjavík’s finer Indian restaurants when Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Ragnar Jónasson and Quentin Bates were wondering why Iceland had never had its own crime fiction festival. Over the years the festival has grown and evolved, also with Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s input. This year, after a three-year festival’s absence, the quartet of organisers were the original literary stars Yrsa and Ragnar, plus the brilliant writers Óskar Guðmundsson whose first book in English was launched at IcelandNoir, and Eva Björg Ægisdóttir, author of two books translated into English already. Here I want to mention the translators Quentin Bates (again) and Victoria Cribb without whom we might not have been lucky to read some pretty spectacular Icelandic literary works.
The magic of books mixed with the magic of Icelandic nature and stories add to the very special welcoming feeling and relaxing atmosphere. Over two evenings and three full days between 16th and 20th November there were panels, interviews and chit chat sessions at two centrally located venues; Iðnó theatre by the Reykjavík pond and Vinnustofa Kjarvals, a private members club. Discussions about different subgenres, themes, protagonists, motives and ideas. Poetry and nonfiction. Location, detection and murder. Vikings and puffins. Influence on TV, film and music. The organisers invited some of the biggest names in the international crime fiction community including authors AJ Finn, Ann Cleeves, Anthony Horowitz, Emelie Schepp, Ian Rankin, Liz Nugent and Sara Blædel.In addition to the stellar line up of writersfrom several countries the Prime Minister of Iceland, Katrin Jakobsdóttir and Iceland’s First Lady, Eliza Reid joined as admired and knowledgeable moderators for two of the headline events. Starstruck by famous and recognisable figures is one things. Being able to chat to them is another. And that what makes this festival both special and relaxing. New friendships are forged, new authors are discovered and while the days are relatively short and the dark nights bring tales of ancient Christmas traditions, sprinkled with folklore, hardship and innovation(!) there was also time to visit beautiful and magnificent natural landmarks in the countryside. This time I didn’t venture outside the capital but I enjoyed walking along the familiar streets, past old wooden houses and modern ships, past works of stunning public art and fabulous murals. I ate fish soup and sourdough bread. I drunk coffee and had cakes. I want to go back in 2022. November wouldn’t be the same without IcelandNoir.
‘The realisation that Mum is going to die hits me in different ways each day.’
Imagine a family tree, with the sixty-seven-year-old Anne as its core. The strong, independent and tenacious woman. Guided by the flows of nature and seasonal weather. She’s married to Gustav who after several strokes over a couple of decades had to finally be moved to a nursing home. Anne never fails to visit him daily. Then there are her two adult children. Magnus lives alone in Stavanger and works offshore. Sigrid, his younger sister lives in Oslo with her partner Aslak, and two children, a headstrong four-year-old son Viljar and an unpredictable nineteen-year-old daughter Mia. Sigrid becomes very unsettled by the arrival of Jens in town, Mia’s father of who hasn’t been on horizon for most of the girl’s life while Aslak happily took on the parenting responsibilities to be with Sigrid. Family dynamics evolve as time goes on and different aspects of personalities develop and interact with the outside world. Mentioning the age of each character is quite important in view of what’s going to hit them very soon, and how they react to the shocking upsetting news.
And now if you could try to imagine the location, an old farm in a village in the mountains, by the lake, quite a distance from both big cities of Stavanger and Oslo, a village which evokes various emotions and memories for the grown-up siblings, and which becomes a focus in the lives of the people connected by blood and rock-solid emotional ties, even if they seem frayed. They keep going back to the place where Anne lives because she has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and each event in a typical course of the year, in a usual social calendar might be her last. Last Christmas, last Easter, last holiday, last morning swim in the lake?
‘I drive back and fourth between Mum and Oslo, […] driving through morning fog and a surprising flicker of hope over Geilo, through autumn rain and paralysing anxiety in Hønefoss, through blinding afternoon sunshine and grief in Lærdal, through the nights, the mornings, the days, the emotions, back and forth to Mum.’
Magnus and Sigrid take different approach to arranging practicalities for their mother who stubbornly clings to life and own sense of freedom, while they both try to understand what’s happening and how can they cope with the incoming loss. What’s interesting in their conversations and concerns is that they perceive past in a completely different way. Sigurd’s point of view takes precedence in the novel as she cannot escape the feeling of being abandoned, neglected, unloved. Since Gustav’s first stroke, Anne’s attention has been on caring for him, which left very little energy and time on for children. Anne’s total breakdown marred Sigrid’s teenage years who then was left by Jens and had to adapt and change her dreams. But now as a doctor dealing with fragile patients and her own dying mother, she hopes for some kind of reconciliation in terms of memories and recollections, some admission of guilt from her mother, and an apology. But Anne isn’t ready for that as illness, loneliness and death take precedence: ‘I feel certain that Sigrid’s memories of her upbringing grow more painful and terrible every time that I fail to apologise, but I’ve realised that it’s useless to try to dispute her memory of events, or to integrate them with my own, at any rate.’ Sigrid feels that her own existence unravels as the days pass and her pragmatic persona struggles with the overflowing emotions: ‘I picture Mum in the kitchen at home, surrounded by her new loneliness, alone in an ailing body.’ In the mixture of fractured relationships, questions about ordinary mundane tasks and re-examining of deep uncomfortable truths, Mia’s attitude angers her mother but is met with stoic calm by her grandmother. Three generations of women rethink loss and love.
One Last Time in Rosie Hedger’s exquisite translation from Norwegian, written beautifully and sensitively, with glimpses of gentle humour and huge dose of empathy, is a book to be treasured and enjoyed slowly, focusing on small gems of wisdom, just like Helga Flatland’s previous novel A Modern Family.
Today the winner of the 2021 Petrona Award is announced, and it’s a first win for historical crime.
The winner of the 2021 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year is:
TO COOK A BEAR (Koka Björn) by Mikael Niemi, translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner and published by MacLehose Press.
As well as a trophy, Mikael Niemi receives a pass to and a guaranteed panel at CrimeFest 2022. Mikael Niemi and Deborah Bragan-Turner will also receive a cash prize.
The judges’ statement on TO COOK A BEAR:
The judges adored TO COOK A BEAR, a historical crime novel set in northernmost Sweden in 1852, and were unanimous in our decision to select it as the Petrona Award winner for 2021. We were particularly impressed with the novel’s use of historical detail, its fascinating reimagining of a figure from history, the sense of location and atmosphere, the rumination on religion versus the natural world, and the depiction of early forensics. TO COOK A BEAR’s superb characterisation of the main protagonists Læstadius and Jussi, which is tinged with sadness yet hope, also allows the author to explore the issues of literacy and class with sensitivity and compassion. The beautiful translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner lets the novel shine for English-language readers around the world.
TO COOK A BEAR is the first historical crime novel to win the Petrona Award.
Comments from the winning author, translator and publisher:
Mikael Niemi (author):
I am very proud and happy to have received the Petrona Award and would like to thank my editor, Katharina Bielenberg, my translator Deborah Bragan-Turner, and my agency, Hedlund Literary Agency, who have made it possible for this novel to reach British readers. This happy news has brightened the growing winter darkness here in the very north of Scandinavia. I am sending my warmest thanks to all my British readers.
Deborah Bragan-Turner (translator):
I am absolutely thrilled and very honoured to receive the Petrona Award. It’s a great privilege to be in the company of such accomplished authors and translators on the shortlist. Many congratulations to you all. Thank you to MacLehose Press for your support and editorial advice, and to the panel of judges for your championing of and enthusiasm for Scandinavian fiction in translation. And of course thank you most of all, Mikael Niemi, for bringing the story of Jussi and the pastor to us in TO COOK A BEAR, an inspired novel and a joy to translate.
We are delighted that Mikael Niemi’s novel has been recognised with the Petrona Award. TO COOK A BEAR is immersive and transporting, historical crime fiction at its best, and it has been thrilling to watch it find its readers in English. Powerfully vivid and lush in its descriptions of Sweden’s very far north, and brilliant on literacy and the power of language, it has been beautifully and imaginatively rendered in Deborah Bragan-Turner’s translation. Congratulations to them both!
The Petrona team would like to thank our sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous and continued support of the 2021 Petrona Award.
This is the ninth year of the Petrona Award. Previous winners of the Petrona Award are Liza Marklund for LAST WILL, translated by Neil Smith, LINDA, AS IN THE LINDA MURDER by Leif G.W. Persson, also translated by Neil Smith, THE SILENCE OF THE SEA by Yrsa Sigurđardóttir, translated by Victoria Cribb, THE CAVEMAN by Jørn Lier Horst, translated by Anne Bruce, WHERE ROSES NEVER DIE by Gunnar Staalesen, translated by Don Bartlett, QUICKSAND by Malin Persson Giolito, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, THE KATHARINA CODE by Jørn Lier Horst, translated by Anne Bruce and LITTLE SIBERIA by Antti Tuomainen, translated by David Hackston.
I’m absolutely delighted to start the blog tour for The Commandments / Boðorðinpenned 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!
Guilty. One word on a beggar’s cardboard sign. And now he is dead, stabbed in a wintry Copenhagen street, the second homeless victim in as many weeks. Dagbladet reporter Jensen, stumbling across the body on her way to work, calls her ex lover DI Henrik Jungersen. As, inevitably, old passions are rekindled, so are old regrets, and that is just the start of Jensen’s troubles. The front page is an open goal, but nothing feels right… When a third body turns up, it seems certain that a serial killer is on the loose. But why pick on the homeless? And is the link to an old murder case just a coincidence? With her teenage apprentice Gustav, Jensen soon finds herself putting everything on the line to discover exactly who is guilty.
That’s the premise of Heidi Amsinck‘s second book My Name is Jensen, set in snowy Copenhagen, and published by Muswell Press in August 2021. Together with Katrine Engberg and Lone Theils, Heidi will be discussing Danish Noir at the online event Murder most foul in the evening of 27th October and organised by Barnet Libraries. Tickets – Eventbrite. Here, however, you can read Heidi’s thoughts on the writing process of a novel set in her hometown yet not written in her mother tongue which I found so intriguing.
‘I’m Danish but write in English. I rarely give it much thought, but reading my Copenhagen Crime novel My Name is Jensen translated into my mother tongue by a fellow Danish author has made me reflect: how strange is this?
I was born in Copenhagen where my parents met as kids in the 1950s. I grew up in Denmark, didn’t leave the country till I’d graduated from journalism school, and wrote articles in Danish for newspapers back home for many years. However, in all the time I’ve been writing fiction, I’ve been writing in English.
Thinking about it, it must have something to do with wishing to belong in my adopted homeland. Shortly after arriving in London on a foggy winter’s night to begin a new life as a foreign correspondent, someone told me that if I wanted to master English, I should listen regularly to The Archers. I followed the advice (still do), all the while inhaling as many short stories and novels in English as I could lay my hands on.
I read eclectically but have always been a fan of the dark and mysterious: Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Daphne du Maurier, Isak Dinesen (AKA Danish author Karen Blixen who wrote in English and Danish both). In my youth I devoured the novels of Stephen King, and once in England began to work my way through the crime fiction greats: Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, PD James, Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin and many, many more.
Yes, even all that doesn’t seem enough to explain why, when my own dark stories began to take shape with a series of Copenhagen twilight tales for BBC Radio 4, they did so in English.
As I settled in Britain, I had kids and made friends, and there is probably a part of me that wanted to use fiction as a means of showing them where I come from in a language we share. But, more than that, I’ve realised that writing in English about my home country lets me keep my distance in useful ways.
When I wrote My Name is Jensen during the first lockdown in spring 2020, distance to home wasn’t a choice. Unable to travel, I yearned for Denmark and my Danish friends and family. I found writing about my beloved Copenhagen extremely soothing.
Jensen is a Danish reporter who returns home from London after many years, something I never did, though I often imagined what it would be like. As Jensen travels through the city on the hunt for a killer, in a race against her on-off lover DI Henrik Jungersen, she notices its otherness in a way no Copenhagener would. If I’d written the novel in Danish, that might have been harder to pull off, and I would not have been so free to make things up.
It’s a long while now since I lived in Copenhagen, but in other ways, I never left. The city has a hold over my imagination like no other and is the place to which my fiction always returns. I want you to go there with me, to see its light and shade and everything in between. I guess that, by writing in my second language, I am merely choosing to take the long way home.’