I was meant to be reading this for the recent Random Things Tour, but have been taking a break for family stuff and my health. However, I did read Vol 1 of this series last year so found it very difficult to see the next novel on my TBR and not dive in. So here are my thoughts, a little late, but surely it’s always good to hear someone praise your work? No matter how late they are.
The author opens the novel on a freezing cold day and a bleak volcanic crime scene, immersing us straight into both the story and the landscape. Two boys, wandering on the local lava fields have found a body in a small cave. They frightened themselves at first into thinking they’d found a black imp, the body was so dark. However, our heroine and police investigator Elma, believes it may be the body of Marianna, a single mum who disappeared from town seven months previously. Thought to have committed suicide, Marianna left a short and cryptic note on the kitchen table for her daughter Hekla, then was never seen again. Now, it’s clear that this is a murder, and as Elma reviews the files from the previous year, when this started as a missing person investigation, she finds the work less than satisfactory. She can see so many unanswered questions to follow up. Hekla is now in foster care, with a couple who have fostered her many times, before when Marianna was struggling or disappeared. Now Elma’s team will have to wade into the previous investigation, social services files and the difficult life of a children whose parent simply struggled to cope.
I loved the complex psychology behind this story of teenage pregnancy, family expectations and how to be a parent. Added to that is othe challenge of preventing emotional pain passing to another generation. Our investigation is interspersed with a narrative of a young teenage girl who tells us about her life as the mother of an unwanted child. Her identity is not revealed and we don’t know this girl’s connection to the main plot, but her narrative is sad and traumatic to read both for her and her baby daughter. Meanwhile Elma is beginning to understand the difficult and disconnected relationships that surrounded Marianna and her daughter. Hekla was first placed with foster parents at the age of three when Marianna left her home alone while she went on a drug binge. Hekla’s foster parents were a wealthy, stable couple who made no attempt to hide how much they would have loved to take Hekla on permanently, but Child Protection Services had a policy of trying to keep children with their birth families as much as possible. Elma can see the theory behind this, but starts to wonder whether it’s a policy that actually fails children in practice. So, Hekla leads a life of moving back and forth between Marianna, who was harsh and belittled her daughter, and a foster mother who wanted to be more than her support family. If Hekla had been given the choice, she would have chosen to stay with her support family, but instead was pulled between them, both literally and emotionally. She describes how she feels:
‘It’s strange to be six years old and feel as if you’re a black stain on a white sheet. As if the world is in headlong flight and all you can do is grab hold and try not to fall off.’
Trying to act as gently as possible, Elma must speak to both Hekla and her support family about inconsistencies in their stories. She doesn’t want to cause more distress, but Hekla is a girl of secrets and perhaps lies too. There are parts of this story that might be upsetting for someone who has been through the care system or had a dysfunctional parent. Marianna is barely able to cope with her own life, never mind being a parent. I love that we are party to Elma’s thought processes around the case, and on her private life. As she reflects at the end of each day, the author hints strongly at unresolved trauma in Elma’s own past. There’s also the dilemma in her private life, where the loss of her partner to suicide has affected her more than she lets on. She’s not ready to have real, deep feelings for someone, preferring no strings encounters. Yet she does have feelings for someone, and if she doesn’t act on them, will it be too late? The proximity of her family, and the support she receives from them, is both helpful and irritating by turns. This is her home town, so she knows all the allegiances and quirks of the community, something which can have its own problems when investigating such an emotive crime.
The first half is slower and more thoughtful, giving the reader time to soak up the atmosphere and Hekla’s experiences. In the second part, the pace quickens and the past also catches up as our mystery narrator is revealed – a reveal that had me reassessing everything I’d thought before. In a world where every thriller boasts twists and turns galore, this one packed a punch, was truly clever and had played with my misconceptions of who it might be. Another thing that really hit home for me, as the stepmum to two teenage daughters, was just how damaging the constant wrangling between co-parents becomes. I thought the character of Hekla was pitched perfectly, with a deep understanding of being a teenage girl. She showed that need to belong, to be accepted, whilst also feeling complete isolation – that nobody in the world understood her or had felt what was going in on her head. This is an age where being singled out as different is painful, it takes time to work out that your originality is your super power. This was a tense and compelling read, with undercurrents of deep melancholy that seemed to come from Elma and the forbidding landscape. This was a psychologically astute murder mystery, with deep empathy and a strong sense of place. I would recommend it highly.
Meet The Author
Born in Akranes in 1988, Eva moved to Trondheim, Norway to study MSc in Globalisation when she was 25. After moving back home having completed her MSc, she knew it was time to start working on her novel. Eva has wanted to write books since she was 15 years old, having won a short story contest in Iceland. Eva worked as a stewardess to make ends meet while she wrote her first novel, The Creak on the Stairs. The book went on to win the Blackbird Award, was shortlisted (twice) for the Capital Crime Readers’ Awards, and became a number one bestseller in Iceland. Eva lives with her husband and three children in Reykjavík, and she’s currently working on the third book in the Forbidden Iceland series.