The Assistant, by Kjell Ola Dahl – book review

Once upon a time I reviewed The Courier, Kjell Ola Dahl’s take on the Norwegian Resistance and its after-effects. Other people noticed lots of nuance that I’d missed. I determined that I would rip off everybody’s reviews of The Assistant. But this is the first stop on The Assistant’s blog tour so that can’t happen. We will have to see how we go.

Cover of The Assistant by Kjell Ola Dahl

The Assistant is another time-shift novel, split between the Norway of 1924 and prohibition and that of 1938 and high tension about events in Spain and Germany. There are Nazis in here, and communists. Political, or intelligence thrillers are ten a penny. Dahl does something altogether different.

Jack is, in 1938, the assistant. He works for a private detective. But in 1924 he had been running booze, sometimes on boats, sometimes driving lorries across railway bridges and defeating death. His boss, Paaske, is an ex-copper, in which life Jack’s antics featured large until Paaske put him away. The other key characters undergo journeys during that 14 year period: from bus (and booze) tycoon to the Norwegian parliament; scrabbler and grifter; unhappy wife to unhappy wife.

There’s a sense of self throughout all this, and of the way in which people lay down their moral codes. Who is more upright, the former policeman or the ex-con? The Norwegian papers have a view: the latter has a euphemism – ‘old friend of the police’ – but Dahl puts it to us that the truth is a bit more complicated. We enjoy reading about how the characters see themselves. Twice – in the 1920s and 1930s – Jack tries to look at his world through Amalie’s eyes, with different outcomes.

The characters are strengthened by the turbulent backdrop, and vice versa. We do, I think, start with the assumption that most of the people we encounter are probably ‘good’, whatever that means. This despite Paaske and Jack operating a private detective agency which is all about smoke and mirrors. We change our minds as the plot unfolds. And, perhaps, change them back.

But the backdrop helps Dahl get the reader to question their preconceptions. Does a propensity to break prohibition put you on a certain side for or against the Nazis? Or do you just go where short term advantage takes you? The run up to the Second World War was a time in which having a certain racial, religious or political identity could be fatal. In those days, this sort of thing really mattered. You couldn’t really just drift along. You would have to justify yourself – Paaske ends up musing about the nature of evil; you might not tell the truth but might you deceive yourself along the way as I felt one character did? Crucially, you could attempt to reinvent yourself, for self-preservation or tactical advantage, or…? After a few chapters that have us thinking on these lines, Dahl spells it out for us in a key paragraph as the assistant goes along with a revenge seduction.

And Dahl does extremely well to avoid a thriller which puts its backdrop in the centre. Instead, although there is some activity potentially by the German state, it is what one character describes as the ‘circles’ of ‘the same intrigues, the same contempt and the same sick passions’ that make up the core of the book and which make it potent and relevant to our time.

The Assistant is lush, detailed and personal. (Well done to Don Bartlett for a fine translation.) It has a twist near the end that is both preposterous and utterly earned, and a second twist that will, if you are anything like me, nodding in approval.

Maybe I’ve misunderstood the whole thing, or missed lots of nuance. Let’s see what others come up with over the next few weeks. But for my money, Kjell Ola Dahl’s given us another stand out historical thriller that asks us who we are, how we relate to society and what personal red lines we have drawn for ourselves. You know. The easy questions.

You can buy The Assistant at the Cafethinking shop.

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation.

Blog tour poster

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