Book review – Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

Ashes to Dust is the third in Yrsa Sigurðardottir’s series about detective Thóra Gudmundsdóttir (or Þóra Guðmundsdóttir in Icelandic).

Thóra is investigating the murder of 4 men whose bodies have just been discovered, but that took place either during or just before or after the eruption of Eldfell on Heimaey Island in 1973. A local man seems to be the most likely suspect, but he has very good evidence of why it couldn’t be him who did it – so who did? And is the recent murder of another former Islander connected somehow?

This book is set on Heimaey Island, and Yrsa says in her introduction that she was helped by many Westmann Islanders when writing this book. I have assumed that a lot of the little details she includes about the effects of the 1973 eruption of Eldfell on the islanders are true and were part of her research. If visiting Heimaey Island is on your bucket list like it is on mine, these little details make the book really interesting. For example, an image that was widely seen at the time was the cemetery covered in lava while the eruption took place, with the only thing visible being the arch to the cemetery, which reads “I live and you will live.” What a motto for a cemetery!  I had never heard of this before. I can’t find this photo online, but here is one of the arch today with Eldfell in the background:

Photo from commons.wikimedia.org

The book highlights how a close knit community will come together to shelter one of their own, and how even very big secrets can be kept by a lot of people for a long time. There are undertones throughout of the Islanders mistrust of people from the mainland, especially from the big city.  They do come to trust Thóra and she attends the annual festival in August with her children, where Islanders live in tents with all their comfortable furniture from home for a weekend.

What sets Yrsa apart as a writer for me is her use of humour, she manages to be very funny even when writing about dark subjects. She is always particularly funny when it involves Thóra’s secretary Bella (who is not the best at her job or the most attractive). We see a lot more of Bella in this book and she even proves useful sometimes. I actually laughed out loud in places at her Bella descriptions. I wonder if she knows someone like this in real life, she just has way too much fun tearing this character to pieces!

While we see more of Bella, we hear very little of Thóra’s German boyfriend Matthew, who is trying to decide whether to move to Iceland. I don’t know what the outcome will be here, but I can imagine that if he does it will make the situation with her children more complicated.

I don’t really have any criticisms of this book. I find her books generally more “even” than Indriðason’s, they are more consistent in their quality and maybe without such scarily brilliant moments as he can have, but also less to criticise. I also quite like the woman’s touch that her books have. This one had quite a lot of explaining to do in the last pages to wrap everything up, and as usual I couldn’t have figured it out myself.

I’ve got her next and last English translation in my reading pile now…

Have you read any of her books? Do you prefer her writing or Arnaldur Indriðason’s? Such choices…

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4 thoughts on “Book review – Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

    • Yes, interesting point, there are some complex relationships in Erlendur’s world. Thank you for that link, I enjoyed that post. Some clever points there about the skill of keeping a running joke going and wishing you knew the characters. It’s true, I do wish I knew these people! I wish I could write half as well as that.

  1. very well written book review 🙂
    I am a devoted Arnaldur fan, but have to admit that im also an Yrsa fan. They have a very different style, which in my books make them so good. And you are right, Yrsa is more sarcastic and has the black Icelandic humor, where we laugh about serious things like cancer.. We all have to go someday anyways, she might be saying 🙂
    And you were also right about Heimaey, these avents did accure.
    Though it is commen to see writings like that in cemeteries in Iceland. Alot of us do believe in internal life, such as, Life is not over after death, therfore the writing, ” i live, and you will continue living”. p.s. the majority of us also belives in ghosts, elves and ancient creatures.. 😉

    • Yrsa seems like she would be a fun friend to have in real life! We could enjoy being cynical together.

      I appreciate the eternal life sentiments. I just have an overactive imagination in cemeteries and love to imagine scary things about them. I would love to see that original picture of Eldfell erupting behind it.

      And don’t forget my favourite, trolls…

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