The Island is the middle book in the Hulda Hermannsdóttir, or ‘Hidden Iceland’ trilogy. We haven’t, yet, featured the first instalment, The Darkness, in a mild and ineffectual protest against the series being written in reverse. I’m sure that won’t put you off, and indeed, this is as good a novel in which to meet Hulda as any.
Jónasson’s previous series, the ‘Dark Iceland’ novels featuring Ari Thór, was a huge hit in the UK and elsewhere, introducing casual readers to the remotest parts of northern Iceland. The books leaned heavily on the Golden Age tradition of crime writing, personified perhaps by Agatha Christie and it is no surprise that cover of my review copy contains a glossy button, telling me IF YOU LOVE AGATHA CHRISTIE, YOU’LL LOVE THIS.
With expectations duly set, let’s get straight to the mystery. There are two deaths, 10 years apart. The first is meant to have been solved (though we as readers know that the case was dodgy); the second is as close to a locked-room mystery as we can get, given that it took place on a remote island. Likelihood is, we have only three potential perps. And with odds that good, even I had a go at solving the murder. The clever part of the mystery, though, is that the information about the first murder shifts, and the reader needs to keep applying that updated data to the second. Certainly, the puzzle keeps us interested, and guessing almost to the last page.
We engage with Hulda, but not really with the other characters, even though there a few who merit point-of-view chapters. I think that’s OK given that the book is in some ways a study of loneliness. The novel continues Jónasson’s stripped-down style, translated expertly by Victoria Cribb.
What really lifts the novel is the way in which it tries to describe ‘Hidden Iceland’, by exploring different ways of hidden-ness. The weekend summer-house is guarded by physical barriers, as is the island. Behind those barriers, there are kittiwakes, puffins and sheep – and farms abandoned to the elements. But there is plenty of hiding going on even where the humans tread. Hidden shame of different kinds propels far too many characters down dark paths. Jónasson plays with us, a little, to riff on the theme: the victim of the first murder is not named out loud until page 245. Hulda flies to Savannah, Georgia, to try to find the identity of her father, but there is plenty that she has not noticed within her family in Iceland. We know, from the epilogue that not everything that perhaps should be revealed, has been revealed. How much of this hiding is deliberate? Where it is deliberate, is it useful? To what extent is it just what happens when people are trying to figure their way through life? And to what extent is it manipulated by venal people? These are the questions that will resonate with us, long after the ins and outs of the two deaths have been forgotten.
Gripping and evocative, The Island confirms that Ragnar Jónasson has lost none of his inventiveness and ambition.
Thanks to Michael Joseph for the review copy.
And do stop by the other blogs taking part on the tour: