One From the Archive: ‘The Murder of Halland’ by Pia Juul ****

First published in September 2012.

The Murder of Halland, written by Denmark’s ‘foremost literary author’ Pia Juul, is a lovely new addition to the Peirene Press family. First published in Denmark in 2009, the novella has won Denmark’s most prestigious literary prize, Danske Banks Litteraturpris. This English edition has been translated by Martin Aitken.

The Murder of Halland is told from the first person perspective of author Bess Roe, who, at the outset of the book, states that one views the dawning of spring mornings with indifference when ‘you haven’t slept and your limbs feel stiff and your mind is full and empty all at once’, and ‘everything seems out of sorts’. Her narrative voice is rather a chatty one and we are launched into hers and her husband Halland’s life immediately.

The story begins the night before Halland disappears. He leaves the house quite early one morning, and Bess finds out about the consequences of this when she is arrested for his murder. Bess is astounded, telling the reader that she ‘was astonished not so much that I had been accused but rather that Halland was the one who had been shot. I didn’t believe it’. One of the first scenes in the book – in which she conducts a normal conversation with her mother about her estranged daughter and poorly grandfather in England, and then says ‘Halland’s dead’ almost as an afterthought – shows her concurrent disbelief and bluntness about his sudden murder.

Bess herself seems rather confused as the novel progresses, telling two policeman that Halland, whom she had at first confessed to be her husband, and she were ‘not married’ but had ‘lived together for ten years’. She is a well built up character and we as readers feel such sympathy for her. After a visit from two policemen, asking whether Bess had any involvement in Halland’s murder, she says ‘I lay down on the living-room floor. There was no space anywhere else’. Juul’s writing is both matter-of-fact and heartrending, and she is able to masterfully build up atmosphere and add to the story using just a few words and phrases. Another example of this can be found in the passage in which Halland’s niece Pernille turns up at Bess’ home. Here, Bess utters ‘My hands were shaking because I had shouted the word dead. Only a simple word. But I shook because the word described the truth. Halland was dead’.

The Murder of Halland follows Bess and her journey into the depths of bereavement, including the ways in which it alters her: ‘Perhaps I would never want to think about writing again. That belonged to the past and didn’t matter any longer’. We meet Halland himself only briefly, and see more of him in death than in life. The section in which Bess goes to identify his body is a poignant one: ‘He looked the same and yet he didn’t. I both knew him and didn’t know him. I was his and he was mine, only now we weren’t. We were both alone’. A mystery ensues, in which Bess tries to find out more about Halland, the circumstances of his death and the secrecies of his life.

Quotes have been included at the start of each chapter from a wealth of sources, ranging from Swedish ballads to essays by Montaigne, A Concise History of Denmark and a novel by Agatha Christie. Whilst these quotes only form small fragments, they really do add a rich dimension to the book. The story becomes deeper as it progresses and what looks like a straightforward crisis on the surface bubbles with turmoil, concealment, silence and grief.

Aitken has managed to capture Bess’ narrative voice wonderfully, and not a word feels out of place. The incredibly well written novella seems both contemporary and classic in its style at once, and is a wonderful book to read all in one sitting, or to be savoured one chapter at a time.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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