In 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In a great haste, she escapes to Sweden, saving herself. Her family in Oslo, however, is deported to Auschwitz. In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, who helped Ester get to Sweden. Their burgeoning relationship ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire. And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…
Once again the spectre of WWII, familiar in Scandinavian fiction, looms large in this latest thriller from the always compelling Kjell Ola Dahl. With it’s triple timeline narrative, and an overriding air of conspiracy, lies and betrayal, this is certainly on a par with some of the finest proponents of the espionage genre.
I think the stand out feature for me of this particular book, was the real resonance it had of one of my favourite fiction writers, William Boyd, and this is high praise indeed. In much the same way as Boyd has defined his place in the spy genre with his particular attention to and always authentic female protagonists, so Dahl achieves the same thing with Ester. I found her character absolutely mesmerising throughout as she seeks to unravel the crimes of the past, as the story unfolds through 1940s Norway, to 1960s Sweden and then to the contemporary period. I loved that Dahl imbued her character with an equal share of vulnerability, stubborn minded and tenacious invincibility, truly making her character for the reader to become invested in. From the traumatic loss of her family in Auschwitz, to the murder of her closest friend, and then her conflicting hard headedness and attraction to the man she believed responsible of this crime, Dahl puts her through an emotional wringer, which instead of breaking her, just makes her grow in stature among her peers, and allows her to navigate the disturbing vibrations of the past in the present. I must confess, that such was my interest in her character, the male protagonists of the book became shadowy conduits for Ester’s self realisation, but without their attempted manipulations, and seeming duplicity in relation to her, this made for an interesting journey as she navigates her way to the truth.
What I also admired greatly was the way that Dahl so fixedly entrenches us in each contrasting time period, as the book does alternate quickly at times between the two. This real sense of time and place keeps us rooted in Ester’s story across the years, and adds contrasting feelings of tension in each era. Obviously, in the Nazi occupied Norway of 1940s and the severe escalation of the Final Solution, the feeling of fear and threat of violence is palpable in these sections of the book. This is further heightened by the illicit activities that Ester herself is involved in. However, Dahl manages to manipulate our sense of tension, which is no less discomfiting, in the 1960s narrative too, as Ester tries to unravel the enigma that is Falkum. This ebb and flow of their interactions, and the veil of secrecy that Dahl manages to cast over events up until the latter stages of the book is effectively done, all leading to an emotional and devastatingly poignant denouement.
In much the same way as Arnaldur Indridason has recently explored the Icelandic experience of WWII, adjusting the focus away from the linear murder mystery form to something far more searching and emotionally driven, so Dahl achieves the same in this intelligent and absorbing standalone. As a fan of Dahl’s regular crime series, I was more than satisfied with this perceptive, and at times, incredibly moving exploration of Scandinavian history. It pirouettes so neatly between changing times, cultural norms (through Dahl’s precise insertion of music and film references) and the growing self awareness and belief of a truly memorable female protagonist. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)
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