I read Betrayal in two sittings and I rather wish I’d given it longer. I blame, of course, the writer, Lilja Sigarðardóttir, for creating a novel I didn’t want to put down: Betrayal is a political thriller that is on one level a rather tall tale – The Thick of It but with murder and a witch instead of Malcolm Tucker – but on another a very careful plotting of power dynamics and an exploration of the expectations we place on our leaders.
Úrsúla is the newly-appointed interior minister. She has been an aid worker in some of the world’s most harrowing circumstances. She’s been bombed and faced Ebola and is definitely suffering from PTSD, not that she will admit to it for most of the novel. Now she has to face down the Lifeboat people and some chap who wants to prevent parents from giving their children silly names. Her two and a half weeks in office is enough for Úrsúla to potentially wreck her marriage and cancel a universally popular road scheme but not to reform Iceland’s treatment of immigrants which was the reason why she went into the job.
In my experience, most people in public life genuinely think that they want to make a positive benefit to society: very few are driven only by personal narcissism, although these people do exist. And yet Sigarðardóttir is very careful to paint a picture of Úrsúla that is nuanced. The minister’s father was murdered, we understand, but before that he had an alcohol addiction that ripped him from his family and left him on the streets. Úrsúla was unable to save him and now she spends her life saving others. Not that an ungrateful public sees it that way: manipulated by the media, the Icelandic citizens are as worked up into a hashtag-friendly certitude as easily as anyone else. For her pains, Úrsúla’s reward is to have her emotional state wrecked and shredded. But we also get a glimpse of a saviour complex: unable to find solutions for her own darkness, she must lead others into the light.
Sigarðardóttir considers various modes of power: the formal, structural power of the prime minister, the hidden power of the permanent secretary, the confidence of the cleaner, the certainty of the teenage son, the inner strength of the driver. We also consider the character of the minister’s husband, Nonni, who inhabits a traditionally female home-maker role, and who is largely forgotten by everyone.
When I was about a third of the way through the book I started to think about these themes in a bit more detail. But right now I’ve forgotten many of these thoughts. Betrayal wants to provide serious commentary, I think. But it also wants to thrill, and it’s that instinct that wins. The compacted timeline and short chapters that alternate the point of view of the narrator keep things rattling along, and we weak readers are wrapped in the momentum of the plot and the tautness of the prose (hat tip to translator Quentin Bates).
This is an excellent sequel to the Snare/Trap/Cage trilogy. What with The Creak on the Stairs and Ragnar Jónasson bringing out a new Ari Thór imminently, Icelandic literature is at the top of its game right now.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.