‘Now I regret everything. I regret making Ísafold’s favourite Barbie doll do the splits and breaking it. I regret sneaking into her make-up and ruining her new eye-liner by experimenting with it. I regret the times I called her short-arse once I had grown taller than her. I regret losing the scarf that was a gift from her first boyfriend. I regret the time we had a row, and I called her a whore. I regret not calling her. I regret not getting the first flight to Iceland the last time she needed help.’
I’ve found myself reading more Scandi and Scottish Noir of late and Icelandic Noir has many of the same traits that draw me to the genres; intelligent and independent female protagonists, an unflinching look at death and loss, and the unapologetic darkness at the heart of the tale. I’ve had the pleasure of reading Lilja Sigurdardóttir before and this novel grabbed my attention very early on with it’s reluctant protagonist, quirky characters, and an almost lunar landscape lit up by twenty four hour daylight. Āróra is being pestered by her mother. She hasn’t heard from Āróra’s sister Īsafold for over two weeks now and she’s very worried. She wants Āróra to fly out to Iceland and find out what’s going on from Īsafold’s partner Björn and their family who are still based there. Āróra lives in the north east of England and rarely goes back to Iceland, despite being born there. She mainly travels there when Īsafold needs rescuing from Björn. The whole family have known for some time that she is suffering domestic violence, but despite several attempts to help and convince her to leave, Īsafold always returns to Björn. Āróra has given up trying to help her sister; you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. Even now she is reluctant to drop everything and intervene, but her mother is insistent and two weeks is a long time to be silent.
I enjoyed spending time in Āróra’s company and her narration is our main view of the story, although there are short chapters from the perspective of other characters that either add to our knowledge of Īsafold’s life, or contain a clue or twist in the tale. The two sisters have never had an easy relationship and Āróra sees herself as very different from her sister. She describes Īsafold as tiny, almost elfin, with long brown hair and a beauty that she feels is far removed from her own looks. Āróra feels almost giant-like in comparison to her sister, she has a strong body and is statuesque with lighter hair. There’s a sense of inferiority here, as Āróra weighs up her own looks, even if she is thought of as attractive by others she doesn’t see it herself. Other characters however, do describe her as beautiful like her sister and while she’s definitely taller and of a stronger build, many have known she is Īsafold’s sister as soon as they’ve seen her, including the neighbours at Īsafold’s building. In fact, she hasn’t been in Iceland long before attracting a man called Hákon at her hotel. As Āróra starts to question Īsafold’s neighbours about her disappearance she is disturbed to be told that Īsafold has flown to be with her family in the U.K; she never arrived, but did she even leave? Some neighbours have their own reasons for remaining hidden or cagey about Īsafold’s business, but one thing rings true in all their statements. Īsafold was in danger every day she chose to stay with Björn. Grimur in particular gave Īsafold a safe space to come when Björn had attacked her and he would patch her up while trying to talk her into leaving. It never worked.
The author cleverly sets us on edge with certain characters in subtle ways, such as a throwaway line that makes you stop and think or a behaviour that seems suspicious, like a literary double-take. This was a particular favourite:
‘He zipped his jacket up to the neck and walked away. There were only ten minutes before the bus was due. He had finished the walk around the city centre he had decided to take after the film was over. But seeing Björn with a new woman had wrecked any pleasure he might have had from his walk, and now he just wanted to go home and shave all over.’
He seems genuinely upset by Björn’s new girlfriend, who he stumbles on in a nearby restaurant. Everything written in this passage has a sense of real concern and introduces us to someone who must have cared for his friend a great deal. The end line though, is a stroke of genius, and tells us there is something very unusual or possibly disturbed about this character. Olga who lives opposite, hasn’t really noticed much, but she’s trying not to arouse suspicion as she has an asylum seeker living with her who might be denied leave to remain any day. She and Omar are like mother and son. He looks after her with more care than her own family and she trusts him. However, when he is told he can’t remain in Iceland there’s a sudden rage she’s never seen before. When she finds out he used the passport of a murdered man to enter the country she isn’t sure what to think. Olga has never felt scared of Omar but she does start to wonder what he might be capable of. At first my money was on Björn being the killer, then Grimur, and every time there was a new revelation I found myself questioning what I knew and shifting allegiance. In this way the author keeps the reader on their toes. I loved that the book was intelligent and didn’t give up information too easily.
The sense of place was well developed and had an almost alien quality to it that is so strange and adds atmosphere. First of all the reader is wrong footed with twenty four hour daylight, because it is Sumarsólstöður. This is the peak mid-summer solstice, in a whole summer of the midnight sun. Research seems to show that Icelanders actually benefit from this period, because they are outside longer each day. However, I felt the author used it very effectively to add to an eerily strange sense of place. We see Āróra’s Uncle Daniel, compulsively weeding round the edges of his driveway in the early hours of the morning when he can’t sleep. He’s trying to be quiet because he doesn’t want to wake the neighbours, and I felt a sense of loneliness in him being the only person awake. Yet there would also be something special about it, as if the sun had risen to create an extra day just for you. Along with other countries close to the Arctic Circle, there’s a magical aspect to this place where water shoots out of the ground and lava fields look like a barren moonscape. The author also sets the events of the book within recent history. Āróra is a financial investigator and happens upon some interesting accounting irregularities when researching one character. The banking crisis looms over this subplot where she has to decide whether to follow her investigative hunch or let it go and concentrate on her sister.
Most importantly and very moving, is the depiction of the relationship between two sisters. The sibling rivalries, the roles of eldest and youngest, and that push and pull between loving and resenting each other. Āróra has always felt second best to her sister, particularly in terms of their appearance. There are times when she feels obligated to check on Īsafold, rather than wanting to do it for herself. Āróra hates having the role of the sister who ‘rescues’ because she’s aware of how a drama triangle works. Īsafold is continuously putting herself in the role of victim and even though she’s been given nothing but positive encouragement and support from Āróra she can soon flip the switch and say she’s being pushed and persecuted into leaving. I actually wondered whether this behaviour had lead to her death? Had someone become so tired of helping, only to hear her being beaten again the following week, that they’d snapped? Yet Āróra reminisces about the last time Īsafold called her and she chose not to come. Would that have been the turning point? What if she’d said the right thing this time and her sister chose to return to England, safe and sound. In fearing her loss, Āróra stops seeing a problem and starts seeing her sister. The barrier between them melts away as she lists her regrets and acknowledges she hasn’t been the perfect sister either. But is it too late? This was a fascinating tale, from a clever author whose words can manipulate us into racing through the thrilling twists and turns, then stop us in our tracks with a moving tribute from one sister to another.
Published by Orenda Books and out now.
Meet The Author.
Icelandic crime-writer Lilja Sigurdardóttir was born in the town of Akranes in 1972 and raised in Mexico, Sweden, Spain and Iceland. An award-winning playwright, Lilja has written four crime novels, with Snare, the first in a series and Lilja’s English debut shortlisting for the CWA International Dagger and hitting bestseller lists worldwide. Trap soon followed suit, with the third in the trilogy Cage winning the Best Icelandic Crime Novel of the Year, and was a Guardian Book of the Year. Lilja’s standalone Betrayal, was shortlisted for the Glass Key Award for Best Nordic Crime Novel. The film rights have been bought by Palomar Pictures in California. Lilja is also an award-winning screenwriter in her native Iceland. She lives in Reykjavík with her partner.