Strange Shores is the latest installment in Indriðason’s Detective Erlendur series. This book is quite different from the others in the series and I think it will be either loved or hated by fans.
There is an ongoing storyline in the previous books in the series about Erlendur’s brother being lost in a snowstorm as a child. Erlendur has always blamed himself for this, but the reader doesn’t know too much about the background of the incident. This book finally addresses this storyline with Erlendur’s return to his childhood home in east Iceland. While he tries to find out exactly what happened to his brother who was never found, he also investigates the historical disappearance of local woman Matthildur, who was also lost on the moor during a storm. As he talks to elderly residents about their memories of Matthildur, will they be able to shed any light on his brother’s case?
I’ve always loved the idea of the brother-in-the-snowstorm story, so this is the book I’ve been waiting for. I managed to hold on to it for three months before reading it. I’m happy to say that there is closure – I was worried this would be one of those stories that was never actually resolved. I loved this book and preferred it to the previous two which focused more on Erlendur’s colleagues. There is a bit of a last-book-in-series-tying-up-loose-ends feel to this one and I can see how some wouldn’t like the ending.
The reason I think this book could be hated by some is that the overall tone is quite different to the others in the series. Anyone buying it thinking it’s a gritty modern crime thriller will be disappointed. The tone is sad more than scary, and it’s more of a “story” than a crime novel. The mention of Reykjavík on the cover to attract foreign readers is a mistake, as nothing takes place there. This is a book not to be read out of order from the others in the series – you must read this one last.
The normally reclusive Indriðason recently gave an interview to The Telegraph to celebrate the book’s release.
I understand the next book takes us back to 1972 and the focus is on Marion Briem – can’t wait!
Burial Rites is Hannah Kent’s debut novel, and focuses on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, sent to live with a family while a death sentence looms over her for the murder of local eccentric Natan Ketilsson. There had been quite a lot of hype about this book before its release, so I’d been looking forward to this one for a while.
Historical fiction is always a tricky mix of fact and speculation. Kent spent some time in the local area as a teenager and has done a lot of research, with support from many Icelanders particularly with translations. This helps to make the book feel very “real” and authentic when presenting the facts.
Kent is also very skilled in making the large cast of characters come alive. The first half of the book is about the people around Agnes, and helps to build the suspense for the reader wondering what actually happened on the night of the murder. The second half of the book became a real page-turner for me as we hear Agnes’s story at last. She finds a sympathetic ear in young priest Tóti, who has been appointed her spiritual guardian and vows to stand by her until the end, no matter what the outcome. We find out what Agnes’s life was like when she was staying in Natan’s house and unwittingly became part of an unfortunate “love square” involving the other two parties (Friðrik and Sigriður) that are also facing a death sentence for Natan’s murder. We also discover that she was an unwanted child who was always on the move in her early years. She becomes a complete character in the telling of her story.
This is one of those rare books that I don’t have any criticisms for. It took me quite a while to get through it but this was only because the book is too cleverly written to try and read a few pages of at a time. A real classic!
Quentin Bates has written an interesting article about this episode in Icelandic history which is well worth a read, but don’t read until you’ve finished the book if you don’t know the final outcome of this story!
“There’s a great freedom in not knowing exactly where you are heading, to surrender to the security of the Ring Road, where one point leads to another, and you always effortlessly end up back at square one again, almost without realizing it.”
Butterflies in November is about a woman at a crossroads in her life, having split up with her husband and boyfriend at the same time. Through a series of strange circumstances she ends up with a new summerhouse, some extra money and the temporary care of the deaf and mute young son of a friend. Faced with all this, she decides to take her summer holiday even though it’s nearly November. The plan is to drive around Iceland’s Ring Road. Tourists who have also done this route will recognise some of challenges she comes across! Despite her initial panic at being saddled with this quite strange child, they soon develop their own routines and surprisingly muddle along quite well together on their journey.
There is no real ending to this story, it’s more of a snapshot in time of some lives that have come together and any number of things could happen next. In fact the last 40 or so pages of the book are a collection of recipes or thoughts on food that has been mentioned in the book. This section of the book feels very personal to the author and I’m guessing has been included to give some wider insight in to some of the things that have happened. It’s a unique feature which I’ve never seen in a book before and is very funny in places – this idea would work well for a standalone book.
I preferred this book to her earlier work The Greenhouse (which was a big success) but again found it hard to have empathy with some of the characters in the book. They are quite mysterious and there are several male characters who are referred to only as “he” and very rarely by name. I don’t think we ever find out the narrator’s name, but maybe that doesn’t matter? This can be a little confusing but presumably a deliberate technique of the author. The result is that somehow you don’t get attached to any of the characters and you feel you have been kept at a distance. That said, I thought the book was clever and unique in its style and it’s not one that is exactly like all the other books you have read. It is also quite funny in places and I laughed out loud a couple of times at some of the narrator’s cynicism.
This is probably more of a woman’s book than a man’s book, and as with most translated books, it would help you to understand a lot more of the references in the book if you already know something about Iceland.
Apparently the film rights have been bought and the film will be shot in English with an international cast.
Butterflies in November is out on 7 November in English translation. Thank you to Pushkin Press for my advance copy!
Someone to Watch Over Me is the latest book in a series by one of my favourite Icelandic authors. Detective Thóra is on the case again following a fire in a residential home for people of varying disabilities. Who is she being fed clues from? Across town a little boy whose babysitter was killed in a hit and run accident is being looked after by her ghost, or so his mother believes, resulting in a full exorcism. Are these two stories related somehow?
I hate to say it, but this book didn’t grab me. I have loved all of the previous books, and particularly her foray into horror last year with I Remember You. I found this one quite hard to follow, with the connections tenuous. It seemed as if the author also felt this, with lots of deliberate recapping and explanations, making it all feel a little dumbed down.
I initially thought the “babysitter” storyline was the main one in this book and I was quite excited by it, but the “fire” storyline came in, which is actually the majority of the book. I can’t put my finger on it but somehow it just never felt like a real story and I wasn’t interested in knowing what happened next. This was really a surprise as I have found all the previous ones to be page turners even through the stories can be quite different.
On a positive note, we get to see some more of the usual side characters like Matthew and Bella, although not much of Thóra’s family life this time. And it’s always fun to read about Icelandic place names that you recognise. I will still look forward to the next one!
Set in 1973, the book begins with the discovery of Jacob Kieler, who has been found shot dead in his museum-like home in Reykjavík. Strangely, it transpires that his father, also named Jacob Kieler, was also found shot in the same room 30 years earlier. So who is the killer and why have they been targeted?
This is an ambitious book told from the perspectives of the various police offers investigating the case. Interspersed are diary entries from Jacob senior, who kept diaries for over 30 years. Anyone who has ever wondered why there are no trains in Iceland will love the details of Jacob senior’s life, which revolved around engineering and trying to bring the railroad to Iceland. This vision brought him to Germany and plans were on the point of fruition when WWI broke out. His brother Matthias visited him there and is still alive, but a little secretive about the past.
Jacob junior has preserved the family history well and ended up living frugally in a house full of artifacts. Why would he have any enemies and what happened to Matthias in WWII when he went to visit Jacob senior?
If this all sounds a little complicated, it is. The book that covers a lot of ground and sometimes features unnecessary details. It’s also a book that will probably appeal more to men than women in terms of the engineering and railroad side. There are many characters, some of whom you would like to see developed a bit more.
This book is really more of a mystery than I thought it would be from reading the cover, and having been written in 1998, is not just jumping on the Nordic crime bandwagon.
I liked the fact that it was set in 1973 as it makes some of the plot more interesting and is the only way it could incorporate the WWII storyline.
I’ll be reading Ingolfsson’s The Flatey Engima next and will be interested to compare the two books.