It’s hardly new for an Icelandic author to explore themes of isolation. But something that’s new, for this reader at least, is for those themes to be anchored in terms of mental health rather than geography. That’s not to say that the action is rooted in Reykjavík: we travel on a bouncy internal flight to Höfn (pop’n: 2,500) with high wind and snow as our pilots, and if Höfn is too urban for you, most of the book is set on an inaccessible and unproductive farm. Just because isolation can be mental as well as physical doesn’t mean that there aren’t any blizzards.
Pálsdottir gives us three contrasting experiences. Sajee is the furthest from home. Her journey from Sri Lanka has come via Reykjavík. Although her case is more extreme, she is in some ways relatable to those whose story is partly self-written and partly written by those around her and the circumstances she finds herself in. In a world in which we depend on the kindness of strangers, Sajee fares badly: tricked out of her home in Reykjavík she finds ignorant bigotry in Höfn, and ends up signing contracts she has no way of understanding.
It is Guðgeir who helps us pivot from atmospheric tautness to police procedural. He is also away from home. Because of something that happened in – we presume – a different and untranslated novel, he has temporarily separated from his wife and his career as a detective, and come to Höfn to sit out the year as a security guard. He manages to use his detectivist skills but what he really wants is to be back with his family. Similar novels will have this story strand eked out and end with a permanent separation but although there’s a bit of soul-searching and moments of jealousy, Pálsdóttir takes this in a slightly different direction. That’s important because what we need in an exploration of isolation is to know what its opposite is. We have to see it to understand it.
But what happens if your home itself is what causes the isolation? It isn’t clear when Selma last left her farmhouse and she certainly lives in a world of her own. She is taken advantage of and we don’t know when things last went well for her: possibly not since her partner died decades ago. Hardly anyone lives their life in a vacuum: Selma’s life was ruined by the small-mindedness of the few people around her. There’s been hardly anyone new since to change things up, and it becomes clear that those people who are new have not improved things much.
I wasn’t sure about the change of pace as we move into establishing whether there is a crime, and then solving it. It felt at the time as though Pálsdóttir had felt she’d done enough and wanted to move forward. Actually, it makes the novel work rather better: it is by engaging in the wider world that Guðgeir brings something approaching justice. Quentin Bates does a great job in making the different rhythms of the novel come alive.
This was a fine introduction to Pálsdóttir’s work and marks her down among the crime writers who use the genre to speak on behalf of the powerless. I recommend this one, and suggest you then carry on with the second in the series, Silenced. In fact, I’ll be blogging about that one later today.
Thanks to Corylus Books for the review copy.