TV presenter Allis Hagtorn leaves her partner and her job to take voluntary exile in a remote house on an isolated fjord. But her new job as housekeeper and gardener is not all that it seems, and her silent, surly employer, 44-year-old Sigurd Bagge, is not the old man she expected. As they await the return of his wife from her travels, their silent, uneasy encounters develop into a chilling, obsessive relationship, and it becomes clear that atonement for past sins may not be enough…
Aside from my fixation on crime fiction, my other reading pleasure comes from the lure of bijou contemporary fiction in translation, so was pretty sure that Agnes Ravatn’s compact Norwegian thriller would tick many boxes…
From the outset we are completely immersed in the suffocating claustrophobia and changes of tension that exist in the relationship between Allis Hagtorn and her new employer, the mercurial and distant Sigurd Bagge. Almost instantly I was reminded of one of my favourite books, Embers by Sandor Marai, that is built on the discourse between two characters, and the revelations from the past that come to light. To sustain the reader’s interest with such a compressed cast of characters is always a difficult task, and having read other books that have spectacularly failed in this respect, Ravatn stood tall. Using the dual protagonist structure, with only the intermittent appearance of a local shopkeeper, the reader is anchored firmly in the lives of both Allis and Sigurd, and witness to the unfolding details and changing parameters of their relationship, as if viewing them on a stage with the reader as the single audience member. It’s beautifully done.
As Ravatn slowly reveals the emotionally charged and turbulent details of both character’s back stories, where we are, in common with Allis, slightly on the back foot, she weaves a story laden with myth, guilt and undulating emotions. By incorporating the essence of myth, and the consistent references to the changeability of nature, our sense of reality is manipulated, and sometimes the writing attains a dreamlike quality, affecting our perception of Allis and Sigurd and their true natures and intentions. In common with Patricia Highsmith, and early Ruth Rendell, Ravatn ramps up the psychological tension and underlying menace, and I liked the allusion to another seminal work of English fiction, which would act as too much of a spoiler if I was to mention it here. The writing, and the dialogue, in particular is clipped and measured, and every sentence seems to exist under the weight of precise authorial intention. No word or image is wasted.
When you encounter a book like this with its unique intensity, it does return to your thoughts now and again. That to me is a sign of a good book and The Bird Tribunal more than fits the description. It’s dark, psychologically tense and packed full of emotion both overt or deliberately disguised, with the reader invited to fill the spaces between. Not forgetting the flawless translation by Rosie Hedger too. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to Orenda for the ARC)
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