Cards on the table. If I’d known the nature of the criminal activity in Óskar Guðmundsson’s novel The Commandments – serial killing which is itself sparked by historic child abuse committed within the structures of the local church – I probably wouldn’t have committed to read it. I’m not going to pretend it’s a light read. But by the end, I was willing a few extra pages out of the novel. Guðmundsson really makes you care about the characters. You want him to see them right. (You can find out yourself whether he does or not.) And The Commandments is part of a rich seam of crime writing that seeks to address society’s wrongs.
The thing about abuse cases, in my limited knowledge of them from safeguarding training, is that they are almost always centred on power imbalances. Those with the least power are targeted most of all, and that’s consistent with the situation Guðmundsson describes in northern Iceland. The abuse takes place in and around the church but also a theatre group that’s been set up supposedly to support young people. Other than through this group, there seems little engagement with these young people by an avowedly close-knit community. Social services aren’t interested. The police are possibly in on it all, enough at least for investigations to be half-heartedly pursued and not followed up. Betrayal is a word that is bandied around very easily these days, but these young people have been betrayed. And, of course, the people who might have spotted something have been deflected by the perpetrators, whom they trust. It requires an outsider, Salka Steinsdóttir, to take on vested interests. Steinsdóttir herself is facing a personal tragedy the nature of which we don’t understand until the very end of the novel. She is an appealing lead, though: professional without being prim, and we are always keen to see what she will do next and whether it will involve a showdown with some of the more indolent officers.
We would expect a novel of this nature to give voice to the victims, and Guðmundsson is fairly nuanced. We find that there have been a range of lasting effects: some of the young people have turned to crime but we meet characters who have become conflicted in other and less predictable ways. We see people on the periphery who undoubtedly contributed to the abuse without themselves being abusers. Guðmundsson presents us with their involvement without judgement. Except: of course he judges, in his creative decisions. He contrasts the mundane nature of the lives of the police officers with the horror of what the young people experienced. But my sense is that he is encouraging us to find the answers to systematic abuse at individual level. We shouldn’t trust in organisations to do the right thing: we need to be vigilant ourselves. Organisations get targeted by bad people but the response of the organisation is too often to try to protect its own reputation by closing ranks or covering up bad behaviour. We’ve seen it in so many companies, in charities and churches. We’ve seen it in political parties and cricket clubs. Worst of all is when organisations that are meant to care for others abuse that trust. Organisations forget that they are made up of individuals, and individuals are fallible. Guðmundsson says that determined people can bring about change but we can’t take it for granted.
I will look out for more work by Óskar Guðmundsson. The Commandments is stylish (hat tip to translator Quentin Bates), engaging and forceful. It is not an easy read, but, in the end, its message is defiant.
Thanks to Corylus Books for the review copy and to Ewa Sherman for the invitation to take part in the blog tour.