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Abandoned Books: ‘Collected Stories’ by Colette and ‘After the Death of Ellen Keldberg’ by Eddie Thomas Petersen

Collected Stories by Colette 9780374518653
I have been looking forward to Colette’s Collected Stories for such a long time. Translated by Antonia White, an author whom I enjoy, I expected that these tales would be immersive, beautifully written, and memorable. I normally find Colette’s work immediately absorbing and transporting, so I was surprised when I did not find myself becoming immersed in this early on. These are largely really more like sketches and monologues than short stories, and as most of them feature Colette, or a facsimile of herself, either as narrator or main character, it feels like a series of biographical fragments rather than a collection of stories.

Collected Stories had very little of the pull which I was expecting. There was little of the charm and wit of her longer works, too. Perhaps because the collection which I read is comprised of earlier stories, they are not as polished as her later work. Regardless, I felt markedly underwhelmed by this collection. I enjoyed a couple of the stories, but the plots included were largely very thin on the ground, and the characters difficult to connect with.

White’s translation felt seamless, and I had no problem with the prose itself. Collected Stories feels like an anomaly in what I have read of Colette’s thus far. I found this collection lacklustre and disappointing, but am hoping that it is just a blip in her oeuvre, as I would very much like to read the rest of Colette’s full-lenth work in future.

 

9781999944841After the Death of Ellen Keldberg by Eddie Thomas Petersen
Eddie Thomas Petersen’s After the Death of Ellen Keldberg has been translated from its original Danish by Toby Bainton. Set in the Danish seaside town of Skagen, which is ‘an artists’ paradise in summer, but only the locals belong there in winter’, a mystery begins to unfold when the dead body of a woman named Ellen Keldberg is discovered on a bench.

Petersen immediately sets the scene, in brief descriptive prose: ‘Bluish white, like skimmed milk, the mist seems so near that you could gather it up in your hands. The storm has blown itself out in the night and the wind has dropped, but you can still hear the waves breaking in a hollow roar out by the bay.’ There is nothing particularly wrong with the prose here, but I found the conversations to be stilted and unrealistic for the most part, and the majority of the writing which followed too matter-of-fact, and even a little dull at times. The translation used some quite old-fashioned words and phrases which made the novel seem dated.

My expectations were markedly different to what I found within the pages of this novel. Whilst I found the premise of After the Death of Ellen Keldberg interesting enough, for this genre of novel, it felt too slow-going, and plodded along in rather a sluggish manner. The book’s blurb proclaims that this is a ‘subtle novel… an enthralling family saga, a slow-burning murder mystery, and a portrait of Skagen in the dark and in the snow, full of alliances and old secrets.’ Slow is correct. Whilst I was expecting a piece of immersive Nordic Noir, I received something which felt as though it hardly got going.

After the Death of Ellen Keldberg was not at all what I was expecting, and I felt distanced from the characters from the outset. They did not appear particularly interesting to me; nor were they three-dimensional. The entirety of the novel felt rather lacklustre, and I would not rush to read another of Petersen’s novels.

 

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‘Tomorrow’ by Elisabeth Russell Taylor ****

I very much enjoyed Elisabeth Russell Taylor’s short story collection, Belated (review here), when I received a review copy upon its publication, and have been trying to seek out her work ever since.  It has unfortunately proved difficult to find any of her titles, but thankfully, Daunt Books have recently reissued her 1991 novella, Tomorrow.

9781911547129Shena Mackay writes that Tomorrow is ‘a memorable and poignant novel made all the more heartbreaking by the quiet dignity of its central character and the restraint of its telling.’  Elaine Feinstein points out that Russell Taylor ‘writes brilliantly of emptiness, and the need for love’, and Publishers Weekly highlights, rather fantastically, that ‘Russell Taylor mingles the elegant with the grotesque, as if seating Flaubert next to William S. Burroughs at dinner.’

Tomorrow takes place in 1960, on the Danish island of Mon, where ‘a number of ill-assorted guests have gathered’ to spend their summer holidays.  The protagonist is Elisabeth Danzinger, ‘plain, middle-aged… a woman so utterly predictable in her habits that she has come to the island every summer for the last fifteen years.’  Elisabeth grew up holidaying on Mon, where her parents owned a holiday home.  The pilgrimage which she makes for seven days each summer gives her the opportunity to remember her tumultuous past.  Her itinerary never changes, and she expects that every holiday will be exactly the same as the one before; she revels in, and takes comfort from, this certainty.

At the outset of the novella, which runs to just 136 pages, the current employer of Elisabeth in England writes in a letter: ‘Despite living under the same roof as Miss Danzinger for fifteen years, I can tell you little about her.  You must have noticed for yourself: she was hardly prepossessing.  As for her character, I would describe it as secretive, verging on the smug.  I do not know anything about her background, she never mentioned it, but I did observe she spent her afternoons off differently from my English servants.  She was a great aficionado of the museums and once a month, I believe, she attended a theatre.’  This is the first description which we as readers receive of Elisabeth, who proves to be rather a complex character.

Russell Taylor continues with this level of depth and attention to detail throughout.  When Elisabeth arrives at the hotel, Russell Taylor describes the way in which ‘She could hear the sea breathing through the twittering of the sparrows that nested in the wisteria.  She consulted her watch; she rose, put a cotton kimono over her petticoat, threw a salt-white bath towel over her arm, picked up her sponge bag, opened the bedroom door quietly, looked right and left along the corridor and, satisfied that no one was about, crossed quickly to the bathroom.’  Mon has been made a presence in itself, with Russell Taylor’s vivid descriptions and sketches of island life building to make it feel as though one is there, alongside Elisabeth at all times.  A wonderful focus has been given to sight and colour; for instance, when ‘Far our at sea, when ultramarine turned to Prussian, three fishing boats floated motionless’, and later, ‘Over a barely discernible grey sheet of water was thrown an equally grey shroud of sky, but the shroud was torn in places to reveal streaks of blood red and aquamarine blue.’

The loneliness which Elaine Feinstein picks out in her review has been given such attention, and is written about with emotion and understanding: ‘She was filled with an overwhelming sense of loss as she wandered from tree to tree, recognising many, feeling herself refused: she had overstayed her welcome in the world.  Life conducted itself independently of her.  The scents from the sodden earth filled her with an intolerable weight of memory; not that of individual occasions but of the entire past.’

Tomorrow is a beautifully written novella, filled with depth.  Mon comes to life beneath Russell Taylor’s pen, as do the characters she constructs.  From time to time, the secondary characters do not feel entirely realistic or plausible, but the very depth of Elisabeth’s character more than makes up for this.  Tomorrow is so well informed, and feels timeless; the issues which it tackles – in part, grief, solitude, and the legacy of the Holocaust – are written about with such gravity and compassion that one cannot help but be moved as the work reaches its conclusion.

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‘My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time’ by Liz Jensen **

9780747585930It seems that I find Liz Jensen’s novels rather hit and miss for my personal taste. Whilst I adore The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, I recently abandoned The Paper Eaters, and did not much enjoy My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time either. This historical novel takes place in fin-de-siecle Copenhagen, and follows a very articulate prostitute named Charlotte, and her rather crude companion, Fru Schleswig. The house which they begin to clean in order to make some money during the harsh winter of 1897 contains a locked room which holds a time machine; both women somehow fall, quite by accident, inside, and find themselves transported to present-day London, where they meet its inventor.

I am not the biggest fan of time-travel, and if I am to suspend my disbelief at all, it has to be done well. I did not feel as though it was approached with enough emphasis here; the process of travelling from one time period to another was glossed over somewhat, and the narrative simply seemed to propel Charlotte and Fru Schleswig into London with very little explanation. The speech which the inventor gave about his machine was quite dull and stodgy, and gave little clarity.

With regard to Charlotte, I did not connect with her at all as a character. She was incredibly precocious, which I found surprising for someone brought up as an orphan in the Victorian era, with no formal education to speak of. Her narrative voice, which carries the story, did not have enough fluidity to it, and the sentences were sometimes unnecessarily long and too complicated to suit the story. For instance, she might begin to speak about something articulate and quite interesting, and then start talking about sexual experiences in the same sentence, with crude language. Charlotte did not meld together that well in my opinion; there were too many conflicting character traits for her to appear as a believable being. Another flaw of the novel in my opinion is that <i>all</i> of the characters are extremely flawed; they are stuffed to the brim with eccentricities and peculiarities, and as a cast, there is too much which alienates them from the reader.

I feel rather conflicted over My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time. Its storyline did intrigue me, and it certainly pulled me in when I began to read, but I felt as though it was trying to do too many things at once. Whilst the core idea was an interesting one, Jensen surprised me by not seeming to handle it as effectively as she does with her core plotlines and twists in her other work. My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time was a little too muddled for my particular taste, and it does become rather too silly as it moves along.

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‘Mirror Shoulder Signal’ by Dorthe Nors **

Critical reviewers seem to adore her work on the whole, but the incredibly mixed reviews of Dorthe Nors’ Mirror Shoulder Signal which I have seen around the Internet intrigued me far more than the gushing positives.  Let us begin with some of the more favourable reviews.  Daniel Woodrell writes: ‘To read a Dorthe Nors story is to enter a dream and become subject to its logic’, and the Independent follows a similar thought pattern, stating: ‘Her words whip along, each idea cascading into the next: it’s like having a window into someone’s thoughts’.  The novel – or, rather, novella, as it runs to just under two hundred pages – which was first published in Denmark last year, has been translated from its original Danish by Misha Hoekstra. 9781782273127

Mirror Shoulder Signal follows protagonist Sonja, a translator living in Copenhagen.  She has finally decided to take driving lessons, now that she can afford to, and part of the novel takes place within the space of the car in which she is practising.  The novella opens when Sonja and her driving instructor, Jytte, are getting used to one another in the rather stressful setting: ‘It’s difficult to maintain boundaries in an automobile.  When you’re a driving student, you have to relinquish free will…’.

The novella flits back and forth from the present day to Sonja’s childhood memories.  Whilst I ordinarily find that this technique works well in building up a character in a novel, or a film, Sonja feels relatively one-dimensional.  At first, she comes across as a promising construct, but this is somehow lost.  Her experience with the city was certainly the more interesting part of her story for me: ‘…  the city was overpowering.  The sounds, the faces, the colors all seemed chaotic, and she remembered how she’d lain in bed with earplugs and a blindfold.  Molly lay in the next room and blossomed, but Sonja had to switch off.  She turned down that knob in her brain that let her take in the world at full blast, and once the knob had been turned almost all the way down, the heath, the tree plantation, and the sky overhead seemed empty of content.’  Sonja is the undoubted focus of the novella, but it does not feel as though we ever really get to the core of her; she does not have enough substance to sustain the whole.

The plot within Mirror Shoulder Signal is not the most interesting, and nor does it have much impact.  There are some surprising moments from time to time, and Nors occasionally presents glimpses of character which would not be out of place in a Katherine Mansfield story, but the matter-of-fact prose and way in which loose ends have not been very well pulled together let the whole down immeasurably.  Perhaps if more Danish history and culture had been included, the city would have come to life, and added a sense of immersive reality to the whole.  As it is, the small details of the political climate which have been invited feel a little too brief to satisfy.

Nors’ short stories have been highly praised, and, with hindsight, would have perhaps been a better introduction to her work than Mirror Shoulder Signal proved to be.  At first glance, it appears that it would fit wonderfully upon the Peirene Press list of short, sharp translated fiction, but there is not quite enough depth to it to match any of their other titles.  Mirror Shoulder Signal does not pack a punch in any way; in fact, it is almost profoundly disappointing in its execution.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout adds a detachment to the whole, and despite Hoekstra’s fluid translation, it does not live up to its potential.  The pacing is off too, and the whole feels a little plodding from its outset.

The real joy in Mirror Shoulder Signal is in some of the more poetic sentences, particularly those which deal with the art of translation, such as the following: ‘Language is powerful, almost magic, and the smallest attention can elevate a sentence or be its undoing.’  Every now and then, there was a sentence such as the above, or an idea, which really piqued my interest, but these threads were soon lost, unfortunately replaced by dullness and predictability.

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‘The Little Book of Hygge’ by Meik Wiking ****

Meik Wiking’s The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well is the fourth title on the Danish phenomenon of hygge which I have read to date.  I adore the whole concept, and thought that snuggling down with this on a Sunday evening when I felt unwell would be rather comforting; it was.9780241283912

Wiking works at the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark, an independent think-tank ‘focusing on well-being, happiness and quality of life’, which aims to ‘work towards improving the quality of life of citizens across the world’.  Essentially, Wiking looks into what makes us happy.  In his book, he has written extensively about different happiness surveys, and how hygge contributes to the Danes being consistently voted the happiest nation on earth.

I read one review of The Little Book of Hygge which writes that it adds little to the slew of existing books.  I thought that I would challenge this viewpoint, which I found to be false, by formulating a list of all of the things about hygge that Wiking has taught me.  Here goes…

  1. The literal translation of the Danish for candle, levende lys, means ‘living lights’ (which is just delightful).
  2. 28% of Danes light candles every day.
  3. Only 47% of Danes believe that hygge can be translated into other languages and societies.
  4. The Danes believe that autumn is the most hyggelig season.
  5. Tokka is the word for a large herd of reindeer in Finnish.  (Not necessarily a fact about hygge, I know, but linguistically interesting nonetheless; it has no parallels in other languages).
  6. Sondagshygge is hygge specific to Sundays; it revolves around ‘having a slow day with tea, books, music, blankets and perhaps the occasional walk if things go crazy’.  (My favourite kind of day, no less).
  7. Per head, Danes eat 8.2 kilograms of sweets annually; this is second only to Finland, and twice the European average.
  8. In Danish fashion, a ‘scarf is a must’.
  9. Braised pigs’ cheeks, and ‘twisting bread’, for which there are recipes here, sound really tasty.

The Little Book of Hygge is very soothing, and includes many lists of ways in which hygge can be incorporated into any life.  The illustrations and photographs are a really nice touch, and the whole has been peppered with interesting charts and facts.  The ‘hygge dictionary’ is also lovely, and the structure, which is broken into different chapters following such things as ‘Food and Drink’ and ‘Clothing’, works marvellously.  The idea of making a hygge survival kit is absolutely darling.  In all, I would say that Wiking does add to the concept of hygge, and the books which already exist about it; it would be a lovely addition to any bookshelf, or an incredibly thoughtful gift for a dear friend.

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‘The Year of Living Danishly’ by Helen Russell ****

I have been coveting Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly since its publication.  I am a fan of all things Scandinavian, and loved Copenhagen when I visited a few years ago.  Whilst the rest of Denmark is on my to-visit list, I have so many trips planned at present that I probably won’t get to go back for a few years at least.  I therefore thought that it would be a good idea to scour bookshops for a copy of The Year of Living Danishly to (hopefully) sate my interest in booking another trip to the beautiful country.  (Of course, this could have backfired, but thankfully it did not!)

9781785780233

The whole of The Year of Living Danishly has been simply but cleverly structured, following a calendar year from January to December.  This begins with Russell and her husband, ‘Lego Man’, moving to a tiny coastal town in rural Jutland, where Lego Man receives a dream job offer to work at Lego HQ.  The Year of Living Danishly was written as a project of sorts for journalist Russell, who had to resign from her full-time job at Marie Claire magazine to move.  She tied this in with the many polls and surveys which have deemed Denmark the world’s happiest country: ‘I decided I would set out to discover the key to getting happy in every area of modern life.  I would learn something new each month and make changes to my own life accordingly.  I was embarking on a personal and professional quest to discover what makes Danes feel so great.  The result would, I hoped, be a blueprint for a lifetime of contentment.  The happiness project had begun’.

Each chapter within the book deals with a different experience of Danish life.  January is devoted to the trendy concept of hygge, and how one can introduce hyggelig elements into their life.  There are sections devoted to Danish industries, designers, and childcare, and much about the pastry for which the country is famous.  Practical issues, as well as necessities of making such a move, from obtaining Danish identity cards to setting up bank accounts, and finding the words for the most simple of concepts (the supermarket, the library) have been included.

I love travelogues in which the author has moved to an entirely different, sometimes even alien, country, and relays their experiences of adapting to a new life.  Russell’s in particular is one of the most readable which I have come across to date; her writing style is both chatty and informed, to the extent that it feels as though you are settling down with a good friend when reading. Russell’s writing is often quite light, but in a refreshing way.  The prose style helps to balance the many facts which have been crammed into its pages, as well as the interviews with those experts whom Russell seeks out to discuss certain aspects of Danish life, from education to religion.

What overwhelmingly comes through on the page is Russell’s eagerness to adapt to her new life, and the relief which she feels when getting away from her previous, stressful North London lifestyle.  Whilst uncertainty, of course, begins to creep in once the couple land, and the force of the move becomes apparent, one gets the sense throughout that Russell is still trying to make the most of the place in which she finds herself.  She gives a fascinating glimpse into a different culture, and the pride and patriotism which Danes have.  The Year of Living Danishly is both interesting and insightful, and will be invaluable for anyone considering such an upheaval in their own lives, as well as the perfect transportative tome for the armchair traveller.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘We, The Drowned’ by Carsten Jensen ***

I purchased We, The Drowned for my dad a couple of years ago in the hope that when he’d finished, I could read it too.  He hadn’t picked it up by the time my TBR was almost entirely diminished, so I decided to use my initiative and sneak it from his bookshelf whilst he wasn’t looking.  (Kidding.  I did ask.  I’m no Book Thief.)

Carsten Jensen’s novel has been voted the best Danish novel of the last 25 years, and has been translated by Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder.  Almost every review I have seen to date has been incredibly complimentary, and has been followed by at least four – but more often five – stars.  Joseph O’Connor’s quote on the back cover struck me immediately: ‘This is a book to sail into, to explore, to get lost in, but it is also a book that brings the reader, dazzled by wonders, home to the heart from which great stories come.  Meet Carsten Jensen halfway and you’re spellbound’.  It is rare, I think, to see a jacket review which is so highly filled with praise as this one is, and which does not rely on cliches to hook the browser.  The novel’s blurb describes it as ‘an epic tale of adventure, ruthlessness and passion’.  Various publications have called it ‘rollocking… rich, powerful and rewarding’, ‘innovative and unique’, and ‘a great hamper of a novel’.  I believed in consequence that I was going to be reading a novel which I would absolutely adore.

We, The Drowned begins in 1848, when a ‘motley crew of Danish sailors sets sail from the small town of Marstal’ in Denmark to fight a war against Germany, ‘who wanted to cut their ties with Denmark’.  Amongst these men is our first protagonist, Laurids Madsen.  He is an experienced seafarer, having sailed all seven seas by the time we meet him.  In the initial paragraph, we learn that he has been thrown up into the air when the ship on which he was sailing blew up.  In his own words, he travelled up to heaven and showed his ‘bare arse’ to Saint Peter; to the surprise of those on the ground beneath him, he ‘landed right back on his feet’. 9780099512967

The scope of Jensen’s novel is enormous.  He encompasses a one hundred year period, and includes four generations of a family.  The narrative perspective used treats the reader too as an onlooker, with its use of ‘we’, no matter which characters are being followed.  The first person narrative voice used in this way is undoubtedly effective in the telling of such an expansive tale, but it also serves to make the entirety feel quite disjointed, particularly from an emotional standpoint.  The reader has to view every occurrence through the same filter as the all-encompassing narrator, and there is thus little scope for adding one’s own opinion into the book whilst one is reading.  We see things exactly as they are set out; consequently, we have a prescribed, and quite restricted view.

The sense of static place in We, The Drowned is strong, and is often evoked dramatically.  Of the changing of the seasons for instance, Jensen writes: ‘Winter arrived, and with it the frost.  The boats were laid up in the harbour, the harbour froze over and an ice pack formed on the beach.  Island and sea became one; we inhabited a white continent whose infinity both beckoned and terrified us.  We could walk as far as Ristinge Klint on the island of Langeland if we wanted to, marching across frozen ships’ channels between sandbanks that lay like white hills, collecting snowdrifts fringed by ice packs.  It looked so wild, windswept and deserted’.  For me, Jensen’s descriptions were the real strength of the novel.

We, The Drowned is undoubtedly well written, but I did find it a little slow at times.  A lot of the details felt drawn out, and there were some sections which did not really hold my interest.  Jensen’s novel is undoubtedly ambitious, but for me, it did not live up to expectations, and verged on the disappointing.

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‘Hygge: A Celebration of Simple Pleasures; Living the Danish Way’ by Charlotte Abrahams ****

The Danish concept of ‘hygge’ (hoo-ga), developed in the eighteenth century as a ‘deliberate attempt to create something’ which was theirs alone, is such a lovely idea.  There is no exact translation into English, but it essentially reflects the act of making oneself snug and content, particularly through Denmark’s long, cold winters.  As Abrahams writes, ‘… essentially hygge was conceived as a concept centred on refuge; on the home as a comforting sanctuary from the outside world and a safe place to withdraw to with your loved ones’.  It is ‘about gentle pleasure, and it acknowledges that we need to pay attention to our well-being’.  The Danish adoption of the concept, and the fact that it is still heavily important within society, is something of which the nation are incredibly proud.

The core values of hygge are integral to Danish life, particularly with the eschewing of materialism and the embracing of the homemade or makeshift, but a contemporary twist has been built upon these firm foundations.  Abrahams has decided, in her factual appreciation of Danish society, to adopt the concept of hygge into her own life, lived in Gloucestershire with two teenage sons.  Like me, she has been to Copenhagen only once, but found it a welcoming place, with a fascinating, design-orientated culture.

9781409167594I am thrilled to say that I have been practicing hygge for the entirety of my conscious life, though not until recent years did I apply this wondrous word to what I have been doing.  I take time to notice everything; I like to look at and notice things that others tend to miss.  I love to go on long walks, watch the flames dance in the fireplace, watch the colours change in the sky and the clouds morph into different shapes.  I love to watch buds form in the springtime, lay back on a hammock with a good read during a sultry summer, crunch on autumn leaves with my boots, and crown a wonderfully chilly winter’s day with a glass of mulled wine with my family.  I am self-contented; I am more than happy with the person I am, and how I view the world.

I must admit that I wasn’t as interested in the emphasis on designer pieces of furniture which Abrahams believe would suit a hyggelig lifestyle.  Much of the book is lovely and well written, but the lists seemed a little unnecessary, and even a touch patronising in places.  It gathers a good momentum, and is itself both a fascinating social study, and a very cosy read.

Hygge is an important book, particularly within the frantic modern world in which we live.  If everyone read this, we would be kinder to one another.  There would be less emphasis upon how many things we could buy, and more upon using things we already have.  We would have more compassion; we would be more in peace, both within ourselves and within society.

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Reading the World: Scandinavia (Part One)

I adore Scandinavia, and was very excited about choosing books to showcase this beautiful region, which, for my purposes, is comprised of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland.  I have read a lot of literature, and some non-fiction books, set here, and it was so incredibly difficult to narrow down my choices that I have decided to show them in two parts.  There are some comprehensive reviews floating around on the blog for the majority of these, which I have linked.  So sit back, relax, and read about Scandinavia…

1. The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson 9781908745330(Finland; review here)
‘Tove Jansson’s first book for adults drew on her childhood memories to capture afresh the enchantments and fears of growing up in Helsinki in the nineteen tens and twenties. Described as both a memoir and ‘a book of superb stories’ by Ali Smith, her startlingly evocative prose offers a glimpse of the mysteries of winter ice, the bonhomie of balalaika parties, and the vastness of Christmas viewed from beneath the tree.’

2. The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen (Somewhere in Scandinavia; review here)
‘This is a story about a snow-covered island you won’t find on any map. It’s the story of a girl, Minou. A year ago, her mother walked out into the rain and never came back. It’s about a magician and a priest and a dog called No Name. It’s about a father’s endless hunt for the truth. It’s about a dead boy who listens, and Minou’s search for her mother’s voice. It’s a story of how even the most isolated places have their own secrets. It’s a story you will never forget.’

97818435458353. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida (Finland)
‘When Clarissa Iverton was fourteen years old, her mother disappeared leaving Clarissa to be raised by her father. Upon his death, Clarissa, now twenty-eight, discovers he wasn’t her father at all. Abandoning her fiance, Clarissa travels from New York to Helsinki, and then north of the Arctic Circle – to Lapland. There, under the northern lights, Clarissa not only unearths her family’s secrets, but also the truth about herself.’

4. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Iceland; review here)
‘A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829. Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Toti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.’

5. Naive. Super by Erlend Loe (Norway) 9781841956725
‘Troubled by an inability to find any meaning in his life, the 25-year-old narrator of this deceptively simple novel quits university and eventually arrives at his brother’s New York apartment. In a bid to discover what life is all about, he writes lists. He becomes obsessed by time and whether it actually matters. He faxes his meteorologist friend. He endlessly bounces a ball against the wall. He befriends a small boy who lives next door. He yearns to get to the bottom of life and how best to live it. Funny, friendly, enigmatic and frequently poignant – superbly naive.’

6. When I Forgot by Elina Hirvonen (Finland)
‘Anna is on her way to the hospital where her brother has been sectioned. But – on route – she falters, and her world splinters into a blazing display of memory and madness fueled by her family’s psychological disintegration.’

97819086702437. The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gohril Gabrielsen (Norway; review here)
‘A tragic love story about two sisters who cannot live with or without each other. Far out on the plains of northern Norway stands a house. It belongs to two middle-aged sisters. They seldom venture out and nobody visits. The older needs nursing and the younger keeps house. Then, one day, a man arrives…’

 

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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.

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