20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Denmark, Fiction, literary fiction, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Echoland’ by Per Petterson

Echoland by Per Petterson

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 136 pages; 2017. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.

Echoland, published last year, is Per Petterson’s eighth novel to be translated into English, though it was first published in 1989. Like the bulk of Petterson’s work (you can read all my reviews here), the story is framed around a character named Arvid, who has a Norwegian father and a Danish mother, and is said to be loosely based on the author himself.

Arvid has appeared in various incarnations in previous novels — from a six-year-old boy to a 43-year-old man — but in this one he is on the cusp of becoming a teenager.

There’s no real plot; the story is essentially a series of vignettes following Arvid’s day-to-day adventures on the Danish coast, where his working class family is spending the summer with Arvid’s maternal grandparents.

Here, in the small fishing community where Arvid’s mother grew up, there is a sense of troubled family history bubbling just beneath the surface.  At times the tension between Arvid’s mother and his deeply religious grandmother boils over into protestations and tears, none of which Arvid, a quiet bookish boy, fully understands, and his confusion is mirrored by his own uneasy passage between boyhood and adolescence.

…they [Arvid and his mother] were standing by the little lighthouse now, it was the middle of the day, but so dark the light was on. A lamp turned inside sending flashes out into the stormy weather and he started to cry and the light was orange and it went round and round and he was crying and he didn’t know why. He cried and felt his chest grow big and then contract to almost nothing, he grasped for breath, clenched his fists and she held his shoulder with one hand and his chin with the other and turned his head round to look into his face. He shoved her away roughly. “Don’t you touch me! I’m twelve years old. I can take care of myself!” He turned on his heel and began to run back and she followed him at a more sedate pace.

As ever, Petterson’s delicate yet straightforward prose somehow captures the kinds of emotions that are ephemeral as mist. The story has a melancholy, aching quality to it, but it’s the anxiety that ripples across every page and sometimes erupts into full-scale anger that gives the narrative a real punch.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are some funny scenes between Arvid and his new friend, the slightly older Mogens, when they go exploring beyond the fringes of the village, that helps to lighten the mood.

Echoland is a bittersweet tale of growing up and becoming aware that the world is larger — and more complicated — than yourself.

This is my 5th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought this one last year in preparation for seeing the author do a reading at Festival Hall here in London. I had initially planned to take it along with me so that I could get it signed, but on the afternoon of the reading — a cold, dismal Sunday in October — I was feeling out of sorts, and while I dragged myself into town to take my seat at the event, I scampered back home as soon as it was over because I simply didn’t have the energy to queue up for the signing. Yes, I do regret it now.

Agnete Friis, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Denmark, Fiction, Lene Kaaberbøl, Lithuania, Publisher, Setting, Soho Books

‘The Boy in the Suit Case’ by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

Boy-in-the-suitcase

Fiction – paperback; Soho Crime; 313 pages; 2011. Translated from the Danish by Lene Kaaberbøl.

If you thought all crime novels had to feature a police investigation, think again. In this Danish thriller, first published in 2008, there’s nary a police officer to be seen. Instead the star “investigator” is a Red Cross nurse, Nina Borg.

A toddler in a suitcase

The story, which is told in the third person throughout but from multiple viewpoints, opens in dramatic fashion. Nina collects a suitcase from a locker in the left luggage department of Copenhagen train station, hefts it down to her car in the underground car park and opens it away from prying eyes. What she finds inside shocks her:

In the suitcase was a boy: naked, fair-haired, rather thin, about three years old. His knees rested against his chest, as if someone had folded him up like a shirt. Otherwise he would not have fit, she supposed. His eyes were closed, and his skin shone palely in the bluish glare of the fluorescent ceiling lights. Not until she saw his lips part slightly did she realise he was alive.

Why is the toddler in the suitcase? Who put him in there? Where is his mother? Who owns the suitcase? And, perhaps most intriguingly, why did Nina collect it?

Wide cast of characters

The narrative back tracks to introduce a wide cast of characters, all of whom play a part in this extraordinary crime which crosses borders and the class divide. There is rich businessman Jan and his beautiful wife, Anne; Lithuanian Jučas and his older Polish girlfriend Barbara; single mother Sigita and her young son Mikas; Nina’s estranged friend, Karin; and then Nina herself, a nurse who helps abused women and children.

The story skilfully interleaves each character’s rich back story with events that unfold in heart-hammering fashion as Nina tries to work out not only who the boy belongs to but why he has been kidnapped — and by whom.

And because she chooses to do this without involving the police and without even telling her husband — admittedly, their marriage is on the rocks — there are moments of great tension and danger throughout.

An exciting story

But this isn’t an easy read. That’s mainly because the various narrative threads, told in alternate chapters, take some time to come together — it’s not until the final chapters that the reader comes to understand the connections between the different characters. But the effort is rewarding and the story is an exciting one.

Perhaps the novel’s greatest strength is that the authors — Lene Kaaberbøl is a fantasy writer and Agnete Friis a journalist and children’s author — take time to reveal the motivations of each character regardless of which side of the crime they are on. It makes for an intelligent, involving and compassionate read.

The translation, by one of the authors, is also superb. The prose feels effortless, but has a punch and depth to it, and it is so seamlessly written it’s impossible to tell it is the work of two people.

The Boy in the Suit Case was shortlisted for the Scandinavian Glass Key Award for Crime Fiction.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Denmark, Fiction, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Pia Juul, Publisher, Setting

‘The Murder of Halland’ by Pia Juul

Murder-of-halland

Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 170 pages; 2012. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken. Revew copy courtesy of the publisher.

Pia Juul’s The Murder of Halland is not your usual Scandinavian crime novel. Yes, there’s a murder, and yes, there’s a police investigation. But in this intriguing novella by one of Denmark’s foremost literary authors, the focus is not so much on the crime but on the effect it has on the victim’s long-term partner, Bess.

Accused of shooting her husband

The story opens in spectacular style when Bess, a writer, opens her front door one morning and is told that she is under arrest for her husband’s murder. It turns out Halland, with whom she has lived for 10 years, has been shot dead in the town’s main square, where he now lies on the cold cobblestones.

How he got there and who shot him is not the concern of Juul’s perceptive eye — instead she looks at the impact it has on Bess, a complex character, whose behaviour is often baffling: she makes amends with a grandfather with whom she’s been estranged; gets back in touch  with the daughter she abandoned a decade earlier; kisses her neighbour; gets drunk at a dance and becomes spectacularly ill; sits on the jetty at five-thirty in the morning to read; and runs away from a book talk, taking her appearance fee with her.

She never really mourns in the way one would expect: there’s no weeping, no hiding away from the world. For a woman whose husband has just been murdered, is her behaviour normal? This is something Bess asks even herself, but it is Halland who provides her with an answer:

Halland always maintained that writers were privileged creatures. The more foolish and bizarre their behaviour, the happier they made those around them.

A grieving wife who behaves strangely

While The Murder of Halland is essentially a portrait of bereavement — on that count it reminded me very much of another Peirene title, Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki — there’s much more going on beneath the surface. This is the kind of book that initially feels underwhelming — there’s no resolution to the crime and the narrative raises more questions than it answers — but the story stays with you. I think this is largely because nothing is straightforward and you are never quite sure if Bess — who is likable if somewhat self-obsessed — is the guilty party or not.

As her story unfolds, she reveals new bits of information that shine a new light on events or make you question her reactions. Why, for instance, is she unconcerned that Halland’s phone and laptop have gone missing? Why does the discovery of a secret room he rented not make her seethe with fury and jealousy? Is the strange pregnant woman who turns up on her doorstep really Halland’s cousin — or his mistress?

Strangely, Bess is not the only character who acts oddly: her ex-husband returns and wants her to go to bed with him; her neighbour makes amourous advances; her long-lost daughter is pleasant and forgiving.

The point you have to keep reminding yourself of is this: what is Bess forgetting to tell us?

An unconventional story

If you are expecting The Murder of Halland to follow all the normal conventions of the crime novel, you will be disappointed. Even the characters within it do not behave as one would expect. But that’s the beauty of this thought-provoking and intelligent novella, which is the kind of intriguing story that invites a re-read, if only to discover whether you missed any clues the first time round.

I love the fact that weeks after having read it, I’m still mulling the story over in my brain. I want to believe that Bess is innocent — that her behaviour can be explained by a temporary kind of insanity or a need to live life to its fullest in such close proximity to death — but there’s another part of me that wonders if, indeed, she pulled the trigger or hired someone to do so on her behalf.

Even the author won’t reveal the name of the murderer. When I met her at a Peirene bloggers’ event last month I asked her whether Bess was guilty. She kept schtum and turned the question back on me instead: ‘Who do you think did it?’ she asked. Hmmm…

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Denmark, Fiction, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘I Curse the River of Time’ by Per Petterson

I-curse-the-river-of-time

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 233 pages; 2010. Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund with Per Petterson.

In recent years Per Petterson has become one of my favourite writers. There’s something about his deeply melancholic style that I find attractive. Those of his novels that have been translated into English — To Siberia (1996), In the Wake (2000) and Out Stealing Horses (2003) — are all desperately bleak, but they are also exceptionally truthful in their depiction of the human condition and the relationships within families.

I Curse the River of Time, first published in 2008 but translated into English in 2010, is no exception.

The story is essentially a portrayal of a complicated mother-son relationship. It is narrated by the son, Arvid, a former Communist, looking back on events that “happened quite a few years ago”.

These events occur over a few days in the winter of 1989. The time-frame is important: across Europe, Communism is in turmoil — the Berlin Wall has collapsed — and this mirrors Arvid’s personal life, where much is coming to an end.

He is 37, has two daughters aged 10 and seven, and is heading for divorce.

There were days I could not move from the kitchen to the bathroom without falling to my knees at least once before I could pull myself together and walk on.

Because of this, he is avoiding his mother, “for I had no wish to hear what she might say about my life”. This suggests that she may be judgemental or that she will be upset by this news. But little does Arvid know that his mother has personal problems of her own — she has just been diagnosed with stomach cancer.

His mother, a Dane by birth, has lived in Norway for 40 years. Married to a man 14 years her senior, with whom she has four adult sons — one of whom has died — she wants to spend a few days alone. She books a ferry ticket to Denmark and heads to a town in the far north of Jutland, where she grew up.

When Arvid is told of her trip, he decides to visit her at the summer house where she will be staying. He is angry at his brothers, who passed on the news, because they haven’t bothered to make the effort to “offer her the appropriate words of comfort” before she went away.

This gives us an insight into Arvid’s personality: he cares deeply for his mother, even though he is never sure whether she loves him as much in return. And it also reflects his inability to process his anger — his story is littered with violent incidences — and deal with emotions.

Over the course of a few days in the summer house, Arvid reflects on events which have brought him to this point in time. His memories, which reveal themselves out of chronological order, cover everything from his student days, his romances, his summer holidays as a child, his decision to quit college and become an “industrial worker” in line with his Communist beliefs.

The figure which looms large in his story is his mother, whom he adores even if he never quite comes out and says it. The pair have a shared love of books (“she was always reading, always had a book tucked into her bag”), films and cheap whisky.

But Arvid has niggling doubts about her love for him. He is convinced she thinks him “too fragile”, that he is not good enough for her, that she loves his next younger brother — the one who died, aged 27, in tragic circumstances — more than him. When he verbalises this he sounds childish, immature. On more than one occasion I wanted to tell him to grow up — and get over it.

He has issues with his father, too, although he is barely mentioned. We find out nothing about him other than Arvid looks like him, a fact he cannot stand (“I did not want to look in the mirror and see my father there”).

It seems surprising that Arvid is so emotionally fragile, because he grew up being told he was the only son to be planned. Instead of accepting this news as affirmation of being wanted, he sees it as affirmation that he is different to his siblings (“It gave me a legitimacy I could have done without”).

Is there a resolution to this story? Not really. Most of what happens happens in Arvid’s head, and the conversations with his mother follow patterns that have been set for decades — he comes at things obliquely, she loses her temper, things blow over and they start again — but the characterisation and the emotional undercurrents of this novel are superb. There’s a brutal honesty to it all, but there are moments of humour to lighten the mood.

And Petterson’s prose style has such a beautiful musicality and rythym to it, I would read his shopping list if I knew he’d penned it.

I Curse the River of Time is far from an uplifting novel — it will leave an ache in your throat by the time you come to the last page — but it has a quiet, understated power that makes you feel as if your life has been enriched by the simple, all-consuming act of reading it.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Denmark, Fiction, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Mercy’ by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Mercy

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 512 pages; 2011. Translated from the Danish by Lisa Hartford. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

As far as Scandinavian crime fiction is concerned, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy beats the pants off Steig Larsson. This is the best crime novel I’ve read in years.

First published in Danish as Kvinden i Buret (The Woman in the Cage) in 2008, the book has won a raft of awards, including the Glass Key Award 2010 for Best Nordic Crime Thriller, and remained on the bestseller list in the author’s native Denmark for more than a year.

I’m not surprised. This is an intelligent, well plotted story with a cast of believable characters, and everything about it screams page-turner. I suspect that before long Mercy is the book that everyone is going to be reading, and it’s going to turn the author into a massive star in whichever territory it is published. And rightly so, I might add.

Mercy is the first book in the “Department Q” series (three others have yet to be translated into English). Department Q is the name of a newly created division within the Danish police force that is designed to look at “special cases”, specifically those that have run cold and remain unsolved.

The man to head up the division is homicide detective Carl Mørk. Carl is a tricky character, excellent at his job but not well liked by his colleagues because he is a bit of a maverick and tends to show up their inadequacies. When he returns from sick leave (he took a bullet in the head while investigating a crime scene), he is kicked downstairs, so to speak, and given an armful of files and an assistant, the mysterious but oh-so capable Syrian immigrant Assad, to help him.

Initially, Carl doesn’t seem much interested in working on these dead-end cases, preferring to kill time surfing the internet or playing solitaire on his computer. But when Assad digs out files relating to a young and beautiful politician, Merete Lynggaard, who vanished while on board a cruise ship five years earlier, he is embarrassed into changing his ways.

What Carl doesn’t know is that Merete is still alive. She is being held captive in a steel chamber somewhere in the Danish countryside. She does not know her captors, nor does she understand the purpose of her confinement. But what becomes clear is that the clock is ticking and if she fails to escape death is imminent.

These two narratives — Merete’s predicament and Carl’s investigation — are interleaved in fast-paced chapters which heighten the tension the further into the story you go. Will Carl find all the clues to save Merete’s life? Will Merete hang on long enough to be found by Carl?

Aside from the terrific momentum of the story — and the satisfying climax — what makes Mercy such a great read is its multi-layered narrative, namely a subsidiary murder investigation; the aftermath of Carl’s shooting incident which left one colleague dead and another paralysed; and Merete’s secret history looking after her mentally disabled younger brother. Coupled with superb characterisation and an authentic insight into workplace politics and bureaucracy, not only in the police service but the Danish parliament, too, is it any wonder Mercy kept me gripped for two whole days?

I especially appreciated the fact that even though the victim is female, and imprisoned against her will, she is not subject to gratuitous violence or sexual abuse. Adler-Olsen has made her into a feisty, determined and strong character who refuses to succumb to the twisted mindset of her cruel captor. If only more crime writers would avoid the obvious cliches in this way!

Carl is also an intriguing character, occasionally sexist and egotistical, but with a touching vulnerability that makes him strangely likeable. And his back story, a divorcee bringing up his step-son, is an unconventional one that Adler-Olsen is sure to thrash out more fully in the novels to come…

Mercy is a police procedural come pyschological thriller of the finest order. I can’t wait for the next in the series to be translated…

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Denmark, Fiction, literary fiction, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘To Siberia’ by Per Petterson

To_Siberia

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 248 pages; 2008. Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born.

Prize-winning Norwegian novelist Per Petterson has become one of my favourite authors in recent years.

His much-lauded Out Stealing Horses, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2006 and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2007, and the less well-known In the Wake, which won the Brage Prize in 2000 (before it was translated into English), are both beautiful but devastating reads. To Siberia, first published in 1996 but only recently translated into English, is similarly exquisite.

This one is set in a provincial town in Jutland, Denmark, almost “as far as it was possible to travel from Copenhagen and still have streets to walk along”. It opens in the 1930s and is narrated by a young girl growing up on a farm with her elder brother, Jesper, whom she adores because “he does things that are original”, a devoutly Christian mother, a carpenter father and a hard-working, hard-drinking grandfather.

There is little plot of which to speak, although the story could be loosely described as a coming-of-age tale, because we follow our unnamed narrator from a shy six-year-old, scared of the stone lions on a neighbour’s property, to a 20-something emotionally embittered woman embarking on a life of her own. (Confusingly, the first person narrative is told from her perspective as a 60 year-old looking back on her life.)

The picture that emerges over the course of time is one largely of hardship as her father “works his way downwards”, moving the family into a cramped flat over a dairy when he is shut out from his parent’s farm. Here she must share a bedroom with Jesper (later, she is shocked to learn there are rumours they sleep together) and is told by her mother that she “broods too much”.

Sustaining her through this pinched existence are her dreams of Siberia, a place she longs to visit with “a sky and a light as from the dawn of the world”, and the love for her brother, a ribald, daring character, who later joins the resistance movement when the Nazis invade Denmark.

Later, as a young adult, she moves to Copenhagen and then drifts from Stockholm to Oslo, and fills her days working, first as a telephone operator and later a waitress, and ekes out her nights in grim promiscuity. There is a definite sense of loss, of melancholia, of deep aching sadness, perhaps best described by the absence of Jesper in her life:

He has gone to Morocco, and I have come to this town at the very end of the
fjord where everything was gray and green on the way in on the boat,
and then nothing but gray for days and weeks.

The ending is an unbearably sad one, typical of Petterson’s previous novels, and even writing this review, some three weeks after having read the book, my throat aches with the thought of it. To Siberia is a beautiful, bleak novel, one that makes you see the world in a slightly different light after you reach the final page.

As an aside, I loved reading about a part of the world with which I am vaguely familiar, especially the township of Skagen, which nestles on the northern-most tip of Jutland. Petterson’s descriptions are particularly evocative, although I have no experience of a cold so bitter it freezes the sea. You can see my own photographs of the region here and here and here.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Denmark, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Per Olov Enquist, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Visit of the Royal Physician’ by Per Olov Enquist

Visit

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 309 pages; 2003. Translated from the Swedish by Tiina Nunnally.

The Visit of the Royal Physician, an historical novel by Per Olov Enquist, is set in Denmark at the height of the Enlightenment.

It tells the story of the half-wit king, Christian VII, whose behaviour swings between outrageous violence one minute and confused innocence the next. His advisors capitalise on the young king’s madness to run the country as they see fit, controlling not only the so-called ruler but the nation state as well. This creates many dangerous political battles between rival advisors.

To complicate matters further, the king is unable or unwilling to consummate his relationship with his wife, Caroline Mathilde. She then turns to the arms of another and conducts an adulterous affair with Christian’s most trusted adviser, Struensee — the royal physician of the book’s title. It does not take long before she falls pregnant to him, risking scandal and expulsion from the kingdom, which, in turn, threatens to undermine the very stability and security of Denmark itself.

All in all this is a dark and somewhat astonishing story reminiscent of Rose Tremain’s award-winning Music & Silence but set 140 years apart. The Visit of the Royal Physician is imbued with the same sense of drama, romance, betrayal and political intrigue that characterised Tremain’s wonderfully mesmerizing book. But Olov Enquist, a Swedish author, has written it as reportage, which adds an extra layer of authenticity to the story.

If you like your historical novels to resonate with passion and suspense, you won’t go far wrong with this one. I thoroughly enjoyed it — though Tremain’s foray into Danish history is still the best one I’ve come across.