Deceit, by Jónína Leósdóttir tr Sylvia Bates and Quentin Bates – book review

Recently, some political commentators with an agenda have tried to rewrite what it was like to live through the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic. But if you read Deceit, the first in a new series of psychological thrillers by the Icelandic writer Jónína Leósdóttir, you’ll remember what it was really like: masks, sanitiser, supermarket shortages, rules on social contact and an overwhelming sense of menace. We’re used to Icelandic novels dialling up the elements to emphasise isolation: here we are again but for UK readers the British protagonist Adam and the references to what was going on in our own country make the setting very relatable. Not to mention that Covid struck some far more seriously than others. We really weren’t all in it together.

Cover of Deceit by Jónína Leósdóttir
Deceit, by Jónína Leósdóttir tr. Sylvia Bates and Quentin Bates, published by Corylus Books on 30 November 2022. Source: review copy

That setting, in which societal bonds are challenged with some broken irretrievably and others perhaps renewed, gives Leósdóttir space to explore three different types of relationship. Adam works with his ex-wife, police dynamo Soffía, on a case. They are opposites in many ways but a shared past means that they can get things done when they need to. Leósdóttir makes us care far more than we probably should about their past and future. That’s good because the blood relationships against which we contrast Adam and Soffía are not healthy ones. There’s a bunch of siblings/stepsiblings whose warmth for each other matches the Icelandic winter in which the novel is set. And relations between the generations aren’t great either, especially when a troubled young woman tries to find out the truth about her unknown father.

There’s an undercurrent throughout through which Leósdóttir seems to be pointing out that things would be so much better if we were able to tell the truth – about who we are (mentally and physically) and about the past. (This book isn’t called Deceit for nothing.) Indeed, two of the plot twists are about secrets that Leósdóttir signals pretty early on, enabling us to think through their impact. But the world would not be perfect were we to have full information: it isn’t as though the stepsiblings don’t know why they don’t all get on. Leósdóttir gets us to consider both awareness and self-awareness as some characters have one or the other but no one seems to have both except perhaps the appalling Dóri, who is fairly amusing as he analyses his romantic failures. Hats off to Sylvia Bates and Quentin Bates who have given us a fresh and sparkling translation and who made Dóri make me laugh despite myself.

I haven’t really mentioned the case itself: it’s OK. But I think what we take away from this novel is the pressure: the pressure to be true to yourself, the pressure to find yourself, the pressure to conform to society (or not), the pressure to act ethically. And the contrast by which most people just muddle through, making small compromises each day, either just to survive, or because they have an agenda, just like our political commentators. Some of these compromises are better than others. And, this excellent novel reminds us, that’s where deceit lies.

Thanks to Corylus Books for the review copy and to Ewa Sherman for the blog tour invitation.

Blog tour poster for Deceit by Jónína Leósdóttir

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