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While reading this book I had one of those odd reading experiences that only happens on Kindle or other e-reader. When I’m reading a proper physical copy of a book, I’m constantly aware of how much book is left. I’m literally holding it in my hand. I read this in one sitting, only realising how quickly time had passed when I stopped to mark a page and saw 93% in the bottom corner! Time really flew because I was so absorbed into Ravatn’s world.
Set in Bergen, Oslo, this is a thriller with so many possible outcomes. Our main character Nina follows a labyrinthine trail to find the killer of a musical prodigy. Nina is a professor of literature and gives a speech at a symposium about the futility of studying literature. Lit students are following their own, selfish lines of academic enquiry she argues, but their study doesn’t help anyone or bring anything important to the world. It doesn’t make a difference, except to the student. She proposes that in order to be useful, literature students make them self available as investigators to the police force. They are trained to analyse documents, to read between the lines, to apply psychoanalytic theory to texts and understand character’s motivations. All skills that might be useful when investigating a crime. Little does she know, she will soon be using those very skills in the real world.
Nina and her husband Mads have an absolutely insufferable daughter Ingeborg. When she announces that her home has silverfish, and she is three months pregnant, she asks Nina to intercede with Mads for an advance on her inheritance. Nina idly observes they have a house in town that belonged to an aunt, but she needs to talk to Mads. They are in their own difficult living situation, as their home is being compulsory purchased to make room for a railway. This is affecting Nina much more than Mads because of the emotional attachment; it was her family home, she grew up there. They are negotiating a settlement with the council, but Nina can’t see any property she would want to purchase. She needs to live in something with soul, not a slick waterfront retirement pad. Ingeborg convinces her mum that they should go and look at the house, but Nina warns that there is a tenant that they shouldn’t disturb. Despite the tenant telling her it’s a bad time, Ingeborg goes bustling in, badgering the tenant about the end of her lease and offering her money to leave as quickly as possible. The tenant, a single mother with a little boy, is blindsided by this forceful woman. Nina feels terrible and makes her apologies, sure that the tenant looks familiar to her.
Later, she realises where she has seen the woman. Their tenant is concert violinist Mari Bull, world renowned and now dropped out of sight. Strangely, she then does the same thing again, exiting the property within a couple of days and leaving no forwarding address. Surely this can’t be solely to do with their visit? Not long after, her disappearance is reported by local then national newspapers. She went to her parents place out on one of the islands, where Nina has a holiday cabin, but left her son and went for a walk, never to return. Nina finds herself intrigued by the case and follows clues, from the opera her ex-husband plays as her requiem to a small notebook with musical terms she finds in a box at the house. Fairytales also play a role in the book and like most literature students I am familiar with the work of Bettelheim quoted by Nina. Using this and Freud’s work on transference Nina starts to construct a theory and follows each clue like the breadcrumb trail of Hansel and Gretel. I liked the play on our usual ideas about fairy tales, which tend to be very Disney-fied, and everything comes to a completed happy ending. The original tales Nina starts to tell her granddaughter Milja are far more dark and bloodthirsty. In fact, the darker they are the sooner Milja will quiet down and go to sleep. They include anxious, suicidal hares and a murderous husband who gaslights his wives then kills them when they find out the truth.
From a psychological perspective there are interesting theories around transference and counter-transference, not just in the therapeutic relationship but in any relationship with a power balance that’s heavily in one person’s favour. I was also interested in the theorising around the Oedipus and Electra complexes. Nina is discussing the theory with her students and they don’t see the point of learning about a concept that started in Ancient Greek theatre and seems to bear no relevance to the present day. Yet, there’s a definite unease in Nina’s own relationship with her daughter – Ingeborg has been more likely to confide in or ask favours from her father. For Mari too there is a complicated mother – daughter relationship in that her parents sacrificed their own relationship to make sure their daughter had opportunities with the best teachers and orchestras. Mari and her father were often away together, touring Europe, leaving her mother at home. There is resentment over this and a definite coolness between mother and daughter.
Ravatn’s writing is spare, it gets to the point quickly and without poetry. She can establish a feeling or setting in just a few words, such as how the light changes when it snows or how it must feel to give ourselves up to the water, like Virginia Woolf with the stones in her pockets. Her characters are well defined and psychologically complex, such as Ingeborg’s narcissism and inability to gauge other’s feelings. I have real worries for her daughter Milja, a future psychopath if ever I met one. As I felt the book build in pace and tension towards the end, I knew Nina was getting close to the answers, but is the answer getting closer to her? The end, when it comes, is satisfyingly unexpected and shocking. I love Nordic Noir and this was a great addition to my collection. This was a clever and psychologically literate thriller. I would love to read more of Nina in the future.