Comment • reviews • Nordic Noir • whimsy
Here’s what happened: about a week ago I picked up Cage, by Lilja Sigarðardóttir, in preparation for today’s scheduled blog tour appearance. I got half-way down page 3. Then I looked at the cover. Third of a trilogy, it said. I really, really wanted to know what had got us to this point. Picture as a metaphorical pile of unread books got swept from a table to the floor. I went and fetched Snare, the first of the series, and even resorted to Kindle to get Trap, the second (hey, deadlines). I’ve got to the end now, and I really do recommend that you read the three books in order, a commitment of about 650 pages.
This is a series of thrillers that demands you drop everything. It commands you to follow the fortunes and actions of Sonja, who is happiest being a mum, and Agla, who is happiest when winning. Or so they tell themselves, some of the time. Their on-off relationship ties together the worlds of white collar crime at the time of the Icelandic bank crash, and the underbelly of drug trafficking. And they – and the supporting cast – are, to a character, of ambiguous and inconsistent morality. Over the course of three novels, Sigarðardóttir builds, rips away and rebuilds your sympathy for the two main characters and also those who are drawn into their worlds: the prosecutor-turned journalist, the airport customs official, the jealous ex-husband and the shady conspirators. Right at the start, the constant inner monologues – especially from Agla – about her relationship with Sonja can seem a bit too much, but we learn that all of this is exactly the point: this trilogy is a thriller in which the main characters would, in the main, rather be doing something else. Bragi would prefer to be with his beloved, dying wife than messing around in a customs hall drinking bad coffee. Even the driven and serious María mourns the life that she loses. They are reluctant participants, in the main, and the focus of the trilogy is how they are shaped and developed by the circumstances in which they find themselves. They all grow. Some become warmer. Others take a different direction. But Sigarðardóttir has you not taking sides: in one scene I can’t be the only reader, when one of our main characters is unwilling to commit a terrible crime, to be telepathically egging her on. Sigarðardóttir makes us all complicit. If Iceland is, indeed, a ‘miserable, corrupt island run by a lousy old boys’ network’, in which more than one person is prepared to do prison time for another, we’re all miserable and corrupt and at the same time redeemable.
That isn’t to say that the ending is quite as redeeming as we might want. Sigarðardóttir does a couple of things: she introduces a plot twist which partly relies on we readers having made assumptions and which at the same time provides an air of randomness that we realise has been missing in a tale of decoy and counter-decoy in which nothing is left to chance. I like that. A theme of the trilogy is to question just how much we are really in control. Sigarðardóttir seems to be trying to tell us that we might not be, fully, but we should make the most of what we do have.
What makes these three books stand apart is that while there is plenty of action, much of it takes place between the ears or in the heart. Yes, there’s more than one scene with a tiger, why wouldn’t there be? But the short chapters are just as likely to have had a character thinking about their life or those whom they love, giving themselves a pep talk, or just being damned relatable, until they’re not. The translation into English is by Quentin Bates, some of whose novels we’ve previously featured, and is as we’d expect top notch.
So: a cracking series. And although the trilogy has come to an end, I am hoping that if we ask nicely, Sigarðardóttir might re-use these characters in future work. I hope never to meet people like them in real life, but I’m happy to come across them in print.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copies of Snare and Cage.