Author, Book review, Fiction, Iceland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Thora Hjörleifsdóttir

‘Magma’ by Thora Hjörleifsdóttir (translated by Meg Matich)

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 200 pages; 2021. Translated from the Icelandic by Meg Matich.

Thora Hjörleifsdóttir is a poet from Iceland who has turned her hand to writing fiction.

Magma is her debut novel, originally published in Icelandic in 2019 as Kvika and translated into English by Meg Matich two years later. Oprah Daily named it one of the Best Translated Books of 2021, describing it as an “erotic thriller” in which “volcanic desire oozes beneath the thin rust of relationships”. It’s garnered plenty of critical acclaim from a wide variety of reviewers and outlets.

I picked it up by chance at my local independent bookstore (a big shoutout to New Edition in Fremantle where I seem to spend half my wages) because the blurb sounded interesting. I figured it would be a good read for Annabel’s Nordic FINDS, a month-long celebration of work from Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

Fast-paced read

It’s a quick read… less than two hours, in fact, helped partly by a compelling storyline and a layout that adopts a lot of white space. Indeed, some chapters are just a single paragraph and every new chapter starts on a righthand page. Before you know it, you’re halfway through the book, totally engrossed and keen to see what will happen next.

And then — BINGO! — you’ve finished.

And, if you are anything like me, you will feel:


creeped out



a bit gobsmacked


icky and


You might also feel a tiny bit hopeful that the narrator has found a path out of her predicament.

Toxic relationship

That predicament comes in the form of a man. Not a very nice man. A man who is manipulative, devious, narcissistic, untrustworthy and unkind.

He’s good-looking — and knows it.

Our narrator, Lilja, a 20-year-old university student, is in love with him.

She is impressed by his ability to quote the French philosopher Derrida, his commitment to vegetarianism — “We’ve banded together in our meat-free lifestyle” — and his DVD collection.

But right from the start, she’s less impressed by the knowledge he has two children (by two different women) with whom he has little contact, and a recent ex-girlfriend he can’t seem to ever let go.

Despite this, she’s on a mission to become more than a sexual partner: she wants to become his girlfriend.

I love him, but I’m not going to tell him, not yet anyway. I don’t believe he loves me back, but we’re getting there. And I don’t care. It’s enough when he touches me, wraps his arms around me, fucks me.

They hang out together, but he never truly commits to her. Even when she moves in with him, he continues his philandering and maintains his privacy to a ridiculous degree.

He lacks any kind of social skills — he rudely reads a novel at the dinner table when invited to meet her parents, for instance — and never introduces her to any of her friends, even when they are in her company, and makes constant snide remarks about how many men she has slept with.

His sexual proclivities, and what he expects Lilja to do in bed with him, are also questionable.

It’s hard to understand what Lilja sees in him, but she’s obsessed and seems prepared to subject herself to all kinds of humiliations in the name of so-called love. The book takes a very dark turn when Lila begins to self-harm.

Living in silence

The author claims she wrote Magma to highlight the kinds of abuse so many women endure in silence. “Shame and isolation thrive in that silence,” she writes in her preface. “If it isn’t broken, this story will continue to repeat itself”.

Her objective is honourable but reading this I couldn’t help but think the story was mildly gratuitous. It’s sexually explicit in places (you have been warned) and makes for uncomfortable reading (which is, perhaps the point).

The saving grace is the beautiful impressionistic prose. It’s stripped right back but remains elegant and eloquent. Every word counts. And that makes for a powerful — and, at times, shocking — impact.

In telling the story of a young woman whose all-consuming love affair with a manipulative man results in her eventual unravelling, Magma is as much about lust as it is about the lengths we are prepared to go to stay in a relationship.

I read this book as part of Annabel’s #NordicFINDS23, a month of celebrating literature from the five Nordic countries. You are welcome to join in however you wish, with books by Nordic authors or a Nordic setting. To find out more, visit AnnaBookBel.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Gudmundur Andri Thorsson, Iceland, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting

‘And the Wind Sees All’ by Gudmundur Andri Thorsson (translated by Bjorg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery)

Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 176 pages; 2018. Translated from the Icelandic by Bjorg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery.

Gudmundur Andri Thorsson’s And the Wind Sees All is a beautiful tale that celebrates a small fishing community in northern Iceland.

Each chapter is devoted to a different resident in the village so it reads more like a short story collection than a novel. But there are common threads and recurring motifs so the stories feel connected. A woman wearing a white dress with blue polka dots, for instance, appears in every chapter as she rides her bicycle down the main street.

That woman is Kata and she’s the young woman who plays the clarinet in the local choir. She’s on her way to the village hall for an ambitious concert of Icelandic choral songs, but we don’t really find out her story until the end.

In the meantime, we meet a varied and interesting collection of characters, many nursing heartbreaks and heartaches, but all just getting on with their lives as best they can.

There’s the poet struggling to write the piece he will perform at the concert; there’s pipe-toting Árni, a blow-in who arrived just two years ago, that the locals are unsure about; there’s Svenni, a taciturn and reserved foreman in the refrigeration plant, who was molested as a child by a politician who visited the family home; and there’s Ólafur, a banker who was caught up in the collapse of the Icelandic financial system in 2008 when the branch he managed lent too much money to the local fish factory.

This is just a small selection of characters from a wide and varied cast. Each one is well drawn, reflective and flawed, their stories fleshed out via flashbacks or memories to build a detailed, engaging and all-too-human portrait. And because we often see each person from multiple viewpoints as the book progresses, we learn more than they, themselves, might be willing to share, including the nicknames they’ve been assigned, some of them secretly.

Each person has a story to tell and the stories accumulate to build up a picture of a village with a rich and complex history.

A village is not just the movement of the surf and a life of work, the clattering of a motorboat, or dogs that lie in the sunshine with their heads on their paws. It’s not only the smell of the sea, oil, guano, life and death, the fish and the funny house names. It’s also a chronicle that moves softly through the streets, preserving an elemental image of the village created piece by piece over the course of centuries. This is us, what we are like, the people of Valeyri, we here, we.

The landscape, or more specifically the weather, is also an additional character. The story is set in Midsummer so there are references to the bright light, the sounds of summer — lawnmowers, motorboats, children playing, birds singing — and the smell of the sea.

Reading And the Wind Sees All in one sitting is advantageous if you want to spot the connections and better understand who’s who and how the characters know one another. I read it on Christmas Day and enjoyed identifying the elements that are repeated across the book, but there are repetitions within chapters that lend the prose a particular rhythm and style.

This is a lovely, graceful  and occasionally bittersweet novel, full of quiet moments of joy, revelation and sadness, a story that invites a second reading to spot the connections you missed first time around.

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘Strange Shores’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 304 pages; 2013. Translated from the Icelandic. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Strange Shores is billed as the last in Arnuldur Indridason’s long-running Reykjavik series, a series which I’ve loved following ever since I discovered it in 2006 (you can read all my reviews here).

I had mixed feelings about reading this book: I couldn’t wait to see what happened to Detective Erlunder (he’s been “on leave” in the last two books in the series), but at the same time I didn’t want to read it because that would mean I had no more left to enjoy. In the end, I couldn’t resist…

Two missing person cases

As with many of Indriðason’s novels, this one has two narrative threads, each one looking at a missing person case from the past.

The first focuses on Matthildur, a fisherman’s wife, who disappeared in a notorious blizzard in 1942, never to be seen again, and the second looks at Detective Erlunder’s own brother, Beggi, who was lost in a similar blizzard when he was eight years old, a tragedy which has left deep emotional scars on the policeman. (While you could easily read Strange Shores without having read any of the previous titles in the series, those who have followed Erlunder’s journey from the start will find this aspect especially fascinating.)

The book feels like a police procedural as Erlunder painstakingly examines what happened to Matthildur under the guise of doing historical research; it is not an official police investigation. This is just as well, because what he discovers threatens to destroy an elderly man’s life and much of it is hard to prove. As he goes about piecing together the jigsaw of Matthildur’s case, Erlunder looks for clues related to his own missing brother, which results in two deftly woven storylines.

Slightly clunky structure

But the structure of the book poses a dilemma for the writer: how to explain incidents from the past when Erlunder is looking for evidence in the present? Indriðason solves this by having Matthildur’s story recalled by a character who remembers her well, but his account is not written in conversational dialogue, as per a police interview, as one might expect, but by an omnipresent narrator — I’m not sure I liked this approach, which felt slightly clunky and at odds with the rest of the book’s third-person style.

That said, once the book gets going it is a fascinating story and the resolution of Mattildur’s disappearance feels authentic and believable. Readers who like retribution in their crime novels may find Erlunder’s balanced, free-from-judgemental approach difficult to comprehend, but to me this was one of the most appealing aspects of the novel.

Of course, when you come to the final book in a long-running series, you want to know what happens to the central character. Erlunder has never been a happy man. He has investigated some pretty horrible crimes, experienced distressing fallout from his failed marriage, seen his adult daughter succumb to drug addiction and watched his son struggle to find his place in the world. And all the while he has been obsessed (and psychologically damaged) by the death of his younger brother when he was a youngster. Would he find happiness at last in this final novel?

I’m not going to give that away, but let me say that the ending is beautifully ambiguous, because it’s not clear if the event in which “he takes Bergur’s hand in his and together they walk along the river into the bright morning” is meant to be a dream or not. I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to say goodbye to one of my favourite fictional characters…

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘Black Skies’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 330 pages; 2012. Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Arnaldur Indriðason’s Black Skies, the latest of his work to be translated into English, was first published in his native Iceland in 2008. The time frame is important, because the story is set shortly before the global financial crisis of September 2008 in which Iceland fared so very badly. I’m not sure whether the author wrote the book in the immediate aftermath, or whether he was just incredibly prescient, but the story makes constant reference to people living beyond their means. The main villains also happen to be bankers.

Sigurdur Óli takes centre stage

What is perhaps more interesting is that Black Skies covers the same time period as his last novel, Outrage, so that the crime being investigated in that novel is mentioned in passing in this one. And, just as in Outrage, the morose detective Erlunder —  the usual star of this Reykjavik Murder Mysteries Series — is still on a leave of absence. That gives the series’ other main detective, Sigurdur Óli, the chance to take centre stage.

Admittedly, Sigurdur Óli is my least favourite character in previous novels I have read — he’s too opinionated, lacks attention to detail, goes at things like a bull in a china shop. But it is a credit to Indriðason’s skill as a novelist that he makes him more rounded, more human, more empathetic in this story. We get to find out more about his background and his upbringing, and in doing so we learn not just of his weaknesses, but his strengths too.

When the story opens, he is attending a high school reunion, which makes him question his decision to remain in the police force. All his friends are making money, taking advantage of Iceland’s economic boom, while he’s dealing with the country’s low-lifes. His depressive outlook isn’t helped by the fact that his long-term relationship with Bergthóra has finally crumbled because of their inability to have children and his hard-working father has just been diagnosed with prostrate cancer.

Drawn into an investigation by accident

But Sigurdur Óli has a particular weakness. When people ask for a favour, he cannot say no. He spends hours on a tedious and trivial (and from this reader’s point of view, hiliarious) stakeout, trying to track down a newspaper thief on behalf of his mother’s friend. And when an old classmate from high school asks him to warn off a pair of blackmailers, he does so — in an unofficial capacity, thereby putting his career on the line in the process — only to find himself drawn into a mysterious murder investigation involving wife-swapping and incriminating photographs showing illicit sex.

Meanwhile, in a dual narrative, a local middle-aged drunk wreaks revenge on the now elderly step father who destroyed his childhood. He leaves Sigurdur Óli a package containing a mysterious strip of film, which is 12 seconds long, as a tip-off.

These two disparate crimes come together in a most unexpected — and satisfying — way at the very end of this superb police procedural about greed, depravity and murder.

As ever, Indriðason is not afraid to depict the grotty underbelly of Icelandic life in an unsentimental, almost cold and detached, way. Yet he writes with such skill and diplomacy that it’s hard not to come away from his work feeling more empathetic and more compassionate towards one’s fellow human beings. Despite being books about death, there’s something truly life-affirming about Indriðason’s work.

Note, this is the eighth novel in the Reykjavik Murder Mysteries Series, but you don’t need to have read any of the previous titles to appreciate this one — it reads pretty much as a standalone.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Iceland, Jón Kalmann Stefánsson, literary fiction, Maclehose Press

‘Heaven and Hell’ by Jón Kalman Stefánsson


Fiction – paperback;  Maclehose Press; 215 pages; 2011. Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s Heaven and Hell, which is set in Iceland at the turn of the 19th century, explores the fragility of friendship amid the dangers posed by the ocean. A quote on the front cover  describes the book as “an unusually intense reading experience”. I would add that it is heart-breaking and utterly beguiling, too.

Sea-faring drama

The story brings to life a small fishing community at the “far end of the world” — sandwiched between “the sea on one side, steep and lofty mountains on the other” — and is, essentially, a novel of two halves: the first explores a treacherous overnight fishing trip in which one man dies from the ice-cold temperatures; and the second recounts the impact of his death on his closest friend, who is known throughout the narrative as “the boy”.

The first 100 or so pages are among the most exciting — and eloquent — that I have ever read. It is written in the present tense, so the prose is immediate and often electrifying as it draws you into a foreign world full of life-or-death moments. It feels like an adventure story — and brims with heart-hammering drama.
As a portrait of fishermen putting their lives in danger every time they go out on the water it is intimate and fascinating. We learn how much they hate the ocean (“cold-blue and never still, a gigantic creature that breathes”), the great leveller which does not choose whom to drown and everyone — “rotten bastards and good men, giants and laggards, the happy and sad” — is made equal.

There are shouts, a few frantic gestures, and then it’s as if we were never here, the dead body sinks, the blood within it cools, memories turn to nothing, fish come and nibble the lips that were kissed yesterday and spoke the words that meant everything, nibble the shoulders that carried the youngest child piggyback, and the eyes see no longer, they are at the bottom of the ocean.

We learn how important religion is to them — they make the sign of the cross over everything and hell is all around, for instance, “hell is having arms but no one to embrace” and “hell is being seasick in a sixareen out on the open sea, needing to work and many hours from shore” — and how dependent they are on the weather, which is often stormy and ominous.

But we also learn how their difficult and often lonely lives are made bearable by small pleasures: letters from their wives and children living on the other side of the mountains, dry socks, newspapers, coffee, brennivín, tobacco, rock candy and books. One particular book — Milton’s Paradise Lost — has special significance in the story, not least because lines of poetry fill the heads of “the boy” and his best friend, Bárđur, who later dies at sea.

A grieving boy

The second half of the story — entitled “The Boy, the Village and the Profane Trinity” — is set on the other side of the mountains, as far from the ocean as the bereaved boy can get. There is a substantial drop in narrative pace, but nonetheless it is a beautiful portrait of small town life, albeit in a 19th century Icelandic village, and of coming to terms with great personal loss.

Jón Kalman Stefánsson is a masterful storyteller. His prose style switches from fable-like simplicity to long, rhythmic, beguiling sentences, and back again. Perhaps it is a strength of Phillip Roughton’s translation that everything flows seamlessly — nothing jars, nothing is out of place. It’s the kind of novel I want to read again, if only to recount the joy of the beautifully crafted sentences, ripe with meaning and metaphor, and to revel in the language Kalmann uses.

Heaven and Hell is a powerful story about friendship, redemption, despair and the ocean. It was an unexpected delight to read it and certainly the most enchanting book I have read this year. It deserves a wide audience.

Update: The publisher has alerted me to a wonderful interview with the author on the Maclehose website. It explains that the book is part of a trilogy (the second volume is due for English translation next summer) and that the author is also a poet (hence the poetic nature of his writing and the references to Milton). I also like his references to brennivín, an Icelandic schnapps, which I can verify as a rather deadly drink having once brought back a bottle from Reykjavík!

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Iceland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sjón, Telegram

‘The Blue Fox’ by Sjón


Fiction – paperback; Telegram Books; 112 pages; 2008. Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.

In recent years it’s been hard to move around the blogosphere without stumbling upon a review or mention of Sjón’s The Blue Fox. It won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize — the Nordic equivalent of the Booker Prize — in 2005 and was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009, but I suspect part of the reason it’s attracted so much attention lies in the author’s credentials — in 2001 he was nominated for an Oscar for his lyrics for the film Dancer in the Dark, is a long-time collaborator with songstress Bjork and is a well regarded playwright and poet in his native Iceland.  

I was intrigued enough to add it to my wishlist and recently borrowed it from my local library.

19th century Iceland

The story, which is set in Iceland in January 1883, is divided into four parts.

In the first, a priest, Baldur Skuggason, is hunting the enigmatic — and beautiful — blue fox across a snowy landscape. In the second, a naturalist, Fredrik B Fredriksson, is building a coffin and preparing the funeral for Abba, a woman with Down’s Syndrome, whom he rescued from a shipwreck and employed as his assistant for many years. In the third, the priest is trapped in an avalanche, where he has a surreal encounter with the fox, and in the final instalment, a letter, written by Fredrik B, reveals the (unexpected) connections between all the characters.

Essentially, the story is a fairytale, but it also contains elements of the adventure story and the mystery-thriller.

A novella with perfect pacing

And while it is just 112 pages long, it’s not a story to race through but one to savour.

This is helped in part, not only by the beautiful, highly evocative writing, but the layout of the book in which the first 50 pages often only contain one paragraph or sentence per page — “The night was cold and of the longer variety” (page 17) and “The sun warms the man’s white body, and the snow, melting with a diffident creaking, passes for birdsong” (page 21). This invites you to slow down and to read each page carefully, almost as if you are reading stanzas in a very long poem — and it also helps create the delicious, spine-tingling feeling of being out on a hunt, where every movement is tracked and each second feels like a lifetime.

Sjón has crafted a rather exquisite, highly nuanced novella, one that is cleverly plotted and expertly draws together what seems like two divergent threads into one surprising conclusion.

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, CCV Digital, crime/thriller, Fiction, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘Hypothermia’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – Kindle edition; CCV Digital; 320 pages; 2009. Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.

Ever since discovering Arnaldur Indriðason’s Reykjavík Murder Mysteries series in 2006, I’ve made a point of reading each new release as soon as they have been published in paperback. (All my reviews are on my Arnaldur Indriðason page.)

But with Hypothermia, published in 2009, I left it a bit longer than usual to purchase, mainly because I’d been slightly disappointed with his last outing, Arctic Chill.

But this new novel, the sixth book starring the morose Icelandic police detective Erlunder, is a welcome return to form. Indeed, I wonder if it isn’t his best book yet.

The story is less a police procedural and more a tale about laying ghosts of the past to rest. It ties together multiple story lines involving missing people and murder victims spanning more than 30 years, but does it in such an effortless way it’s not until you reach the last page that you begin to appreciate Indriðason’s magnificent skill as a crime writer, novelist and social commentator.

Hypothermia opens with the suicide of a woman, María, who is found hanging from a beam in her holiday cottage. Her husband Baldvin, a GP, claims she was depressed and still grappling with the death of her own mother two years earlier.

But Detective Erlunder isn’t quite sure that all is as it seems. His curiosity is aroused when María’s best friend gives him a tape recording of María at a seance. He can’t explain it, but he knows that something is not quite right.

He begins poking around in María’s past — her father died in a boating accident when she was a young girl and she developed an incredibly strong bond with her mother as a result — but treads very carefully in order not to arouse suspicion. His investigations are never made official.

Alongside his off-the-record enquiries about María, Erlunder begins investigating two unsolved missing persons cases from the past: a boy in his last year of sixth-form college, who disappeared in February 1976, and a girl studying biology at university, who was reported missing a few weeks later. The two cases have never been linked, but Erlunder begins to wonder if they should be.

“People don’t just walk out of their homes and disappear. They always leave some trace. Except in these two cases. That’s what they have in common. There’s no trace. We have nothing to go on. In either case.”

Things must be quiet on the Reykjavík crime front, because for the entire novel Erlunder does not carry out one official task, either in the suicide case or the missing persons’ case: everything is done on the sly and his colleagues, Elinborg and Sigurdur Oli, who normally have starring roles, are only referenced in passing.

Indeed, this novel focuses very much on Erlunder’s own personal history in a way that has not been addressed in any of Indriðason’s previous novels. As well as talking about the loss of his own brother who went missing in a snow storm when Erlunder was a child (an incident which plays a central role in each of the books in the Reykjavík Murder Mysteries series), for the first time Erlunder has face-to-face dealings with his ex-wife, Halldora.

They might have been divorced for decades, but Halldora’s bitterness resonates off the page. Her total lack of responsibility for the breakdown of their marriage is echoed in so many of the other characters that Erlunder meets in the course of his investigations: Maria’s mother blames her husband for bringing his death upon himself; and Maria’s husband blames Maria for her own situation.

Indriðason does this a lot in this novel: there are constant recurring themes and motifs, particularly of lakes (Maria’s father drowned in one, the missing girl had an obsession with them), hypothermia (its power to kill, both accidentally and on purpose), suicide (“the act itself frequently came as a total shock and could be committed by people of all ages: adolescents, the middle-aged and elderly”), the after-life (does it exist and how do you prove it?), and being haunted by ghosts, both physical and metaphorical (“You have to free yourself from this ghost,” Eva Lind, Erlunder’s daughter, tells him, referring to the loss of his brother; “It’s because of Maria; she’s haunting me like an old ghost story,” Erlunder tells Baldvin, when he wants to know why Erlunder is hassling him about her suicide.)

Of course the genius comes in linking all these disparate threads together, so that one informs the other. While the conclusion to Hypothermia was somewhat predictable I found it a satisfying, wholly believable one.

But what made this book truly work for me was the way in which Indriðason makes you genuinely feel for the victims and the parents of the missing. How he achieves this is a kind of magic, because his writing style is so understated and sparse it seems devoid of emotion. And yet, by the time you reach the last page, it’s hard not to feel a lump forming in your throat…

If the rest in the series are as good as this (according to wikipedia, there are three more published in Icelandic yet to be translated into English), then boy do we have a future treat in store!

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘The Draining Lake’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 312  pages; 2007. Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder.

Icelandic journalist turned crime writer Arnaldur Indriðason became a firm favourite of mine when I read his brilliant novel Tainted Blood (also known as Jar City) back in 2006. The book was a refreshing change to the normal formulaic crime books I’d read in the past, and the setting — the Icelandic capital Reykjavik — added an “exotic” touch.

Of course there has been somewhat of an explosion in Scandinavian crime fiction since then, but it is Indriðason to whom I feel most loyal. Indeed, I have made a point of buying each new novel as it has been released, and The Draining Lake was no exception, although it did languish in my reading queue for about six months.

This is the fourth Reykjavik murder mystery — starring the grumpy but troubled detective Erlunder — to be translated into English. It is typical Indriðason fare but for some reason I didn’t find the story as gripping as the others that preceded it.

As usual, the crime being investigated is an old one — in this case a half-buried skeleton found in a lake after it drained as the result of an earthquake. The skull has been caved in and the bones weighted down by a Russian radio device. Forensics believe the skeleton to have lain in its position for 40 or 50 years.

The police, under the direction of Erlunder, begin their investigation by looking at missing person files.

Intertwined with this relatively straightforward police procedural narrative is a second storyline involving a group of Icelandic students studying at a German university during the Cold War. It is clear that one of these students is the skeleton that turns up Lake Kleifarvatn, so half the fun for the reader is trying to guess which one. But Indriðason plays his cards close to his chest and clues are few and far between.

While I found large parts of The Draining Lake rather dull — perhaps a product of my circumstances, rather than of the author’s work (I’m living out of a suitcase while my flat is being renovated) or the fact that anything to do with the Cold War usually leaves me, well, cold — I did very much enjoy how Indriðason had moved the characters on from the last book. Erlunder is still struggling to maintain a steady relationship with his drug-addicted daughter while his long lost son returns to the fold. And the budding romance that began with a female biotechnician in Voices also takes a new turn.

Other familiar characters have also been nicely developed — Elinborg is promoting a cook book, while Sigurdur Oli is dealing with a bereaved husband whose wife and child were killed in a traffic accident. It’s also refreshing to have the story set in an Icelandic summer, when the sun never sets, instead of the cold, dark, snowy Reykjavik that has appeared in previous books in this series.

But on the whole I did not feel The Draining Lake was up to Indriðason’s usual high standards — although I’ll still be the first in the queue to buy the next one!

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Iceland, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Voices’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 344  pages; 2007. Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder.

Voices is the third Arnaldur Indriðason book to be translated into English featuring the troubled detective Erlunder. Set in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, it’s a powerful police procedural that pulls no punches in its depiction of a sordid crime and its aftermath.

The story opens with the murder of a hotel doorman in the room in which he has lived for the past 20 years.

The man was sitting on the bed, leaning against the wall. He was wearing a bright red Santa suit and still had the Santa cap on his head, but it had slipped down over his eyes. A large artificial Santa beard hid his face. He had undone the thick belt around his waist and unbuttoned his jacket. Beneath it he was wearing only a white vest. There was a fatal wound to his heart. Although there were other wounds on the body, the stabbing through the heart had finished him off. His hands had slash marks on them, as if he had tried to fight off the assailant. His trousers were down round his ankles. A condom hung from his penis.

Erlunder, together with the help of his two colleagues, Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg, immediately launches an investigation into the crime, but this is hindered on two fronts: first, no-one seems to know much about the victim despite the fact he had worked at the hotel for so long; and second, the manager wants the crime to be hushed up to save the hotel’s reputation and to “avoid arousing fear among the guests”.

This is all complicated by the time of year: it’s Christmas and the hotel is packed with rich foreigners “most of them tourists wearing traditional Icelandic sweaters, hiking boots and thick winter clothing”.

The investigation takes place over five days (each of the days is a section of the novel) during which Erlunder holes up in the hotel, taking a room in which the radiator does not work, in order to thoroughly immerse himself in finding out what happened. But this also allows him to avoid the pain of spending another Christmas at home alone with his wayward daughter, Eva Lind, a recovering drug addict. This lends the book an especially claustrophobic atmosphere, because the world outside barely intrudes on the hotel, its secretive staff, the guests — one of whom is under suspicion — and the piecing together of clues.

But the Santa murder is not the only narrative thread in this wholly gripping novel. In a second, interwoven storyline, Elinborg pursues a case in which a young boy is hospitalised after he was beaten up by school bullies. She firmly believes the father is the culprit and does all she can to prove her theory.

Meanwhile Erlunder slowly patches up his relationship with his daughter, revealing some of his inner demons — specifically the grief surrounding the death of his younger brother when Erlunder was 10 — for the first time. He also warms towards a female biotechnician helping out on the case and allows himself to go on a proper date, the first since he divorced his wife 25 years ago!

These additional elements do not, however, detract from the heart of the story. If anything, they enhance it, because it gives Indriðason the chance to really flesh out his characters, to explore their own troubles and heartaches, to make them more three-dimensional and real. To achieve this without sacrificing plot or narrative drive is quite an achievement.

It’s also quite an achievement to write a novel with three diverse storylines centred on one theme — the death of childhood — without knocking the reader over the head with it. And to neatly tie up everything at the end and to present a solution to the crime that had not once occurred to me (I usually guess these things long before the last page), also says a lot about the author’s talent as a crime writer.

On the whole Voices is a gripping read, intelligently written and plotted, that is emotional without resorting to sentiment or reader manipulation, and is satisfying without being formulaic or predictable. More please.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Halldór Laxness, Harvill Secker, Iceland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Atom Station’ by Halldór Laxness


Fiction – paperback; The Harvill Press; 180 pages; 2004. Translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson.

The Atom Station was first published in 1948 at a time of great political upheaval in Iceland. The American Military had been resident since 1941 (during World War Two) and was in the process of establishing a permanent military base at Keflavík in the south-west of Iceland. This was considered by many Icelanders to be incredibly controversial, not least because it would make the country a potential nuclear target at a time when the horror of Hiroshima was very much present in people’s minds.

This is important background detail for anyone wishing to tackle this novel.

It’s also important to realise that Iceland has rich — and very old — literary roots. The Icelanders’ Sagas from the Middle Ages are constantly name-checked — and helpfully footnoted — throughout The Atom Station.

This political and cultural history form the backbone of what is essentially a sharp, often witty and sometimes laborious, satire. The story is told through the eyes of a young peasant girl, Ugla, who moves to Reykjavík to take up the position of a house maid for a politician.

In this ever-busy household Ugla is exposed to a world very much foreign to her rural roots. Here she discovers socialism and falls in with a group that is campaigning for the establishment of a childcare nursery paid for by the state.

She also develops a strong feminist streak, later vowing that she wants to be regarded as a “person” and not a “woman”.

“What do you mean, a person?”
“Neither an unpaid bondwoman like the wives of the poor, nor a bought madam like the wives of the rich; much less a paid mistress; nor the prisoner of a child which society has disowned. A person amongst persons. I know it’s laughable, contemptible, disgraceful and revolutionary that a woman should not wish to be some sort of slave or harlot; but that’s the way I am made.”
“Don’t you want to get a husband?”
“I don’t want to get a slave, neither under one name nor another.”

Ironically, headstrong Ugla falls pregnant and returns to her country home. But having experienced a taste of city life, she is soon drawn back and becomes reacquainted with her past employer, whom, she later discovers has “sold” the country to the United States. I’m not sure what this book is trying to say: that the state is more powerful than the individual and hence there’s no use fighting it, or that capitalism, in the end, corrupts us all?

I’m sure that more highly attuned political minds than mine would have much to say about The Atom Station. But I found it impossible to like, although I tried to like it very much. I appreciate its worthy aims and its high ambitions and the fact it was borne from an important era in Iceland’s recent history, but I struggled with the narrative, which occasionally went off in strange tangents. Perhaps a proper understanding and familiarity with the sagas might have helped me with this.

I loved the character of Ugla, however. She was forthright, strong and had a questioning mind. But even she wasn’t enough to make me fall in love with this book in the same way that I fell in love with Iceland when I visited it several years ago…