Creepy character development paints a convincing vignette of an estranged family with plenty of skeletons in the closet.
Translated from the Norwegian to the German by Gabriele Haefs.
I’m getting to the point now where I assume that anything I pick up originally written in a Scandinavian language is going to be an absolute cracker. Scandi Noir has really taken off in the last few years, and maybe there’s something about the long, cold winters and tendency to ennui that makes for such compelling writers.
I obtained this book from a friend having a clear out. Most of the time, the things you pick up in this way won’t really be to your taste. But then you find a gem that makes it all worthwhile. So much is translated for the German market these days (oh, to be a native German and be able to make a living out of literary translation), that almost anything you come across in Germany these days has an almost 50/50 chance of not having been originally written in German.
Synopsis + Highlights
This is a thriller of the slow-burn type, which works hard to build up a believable picture of a strange, divided family made up of clashing personalities. To say they clash would actually be putting it lightly. An eighty-year-old woman- Anna- having a stroke in a remote Norwegian village sets off a chain of events when her three sons reunite for the first time in years, along with a granddaughter she never even met.
Of the three sons, there’s a solemn undertaker who’s a stickler for the rules, a flamboyant gay window dresser who fled to Copenhagen to avoid the homophobia and closed-mindedness of his isolated hometown, and a lonely pig farmer who stinks like a… well, pig. Her only granddaughter, a dog trainer, also shows up to pay her respects once it’s clear her grandmother is never going to recover- despite the fact that they have never met. Anna’s husband is a strange, mute man who slopes around their dilapidated farmhouse like a ghost and also doesn’t know how to wash himself or the dishes.
The chain of events mentioned at the start of this section may feel a little tame, particularly for an American audience or those who prefer their thrillers full of bodies and explosions. Nobody dies (except the grandmother peacefully in her sleep), nobody goes mad, and there’s not even any incest (well, not really). Torunn, the granddaughter, strikes up a charming (and rather predictable) relationship with the flamboyant Erlend, and they make a concerted effort to support the struggling Tor, the pig farmer with the ghost-for-a-father and no personal hygiene. This is a family drama- suspense and the will to turn each page comes from their chalk-and-cheese combinations and world-building of the rotten farmhouse at the edge of the world.
Anna is a mysterious character. We never really ‘meet’ her, as she is in a coma for the whole novel. We only really get to know her through what others say about her, and there’s a lot of mixed messages and conflicting narratives involved. Tor, the oldest son, is the only one who had any contact with her. In fact, he was still living with his parents when she had a stroke. There are definite creepy oedipal undertones here. There’s an especially memorable part of the book where Tor is reminiscing about his childhood- having a thermometer stuck into a particularly unnecessary part of the body. Yikes.
But, in comparison to other books I’ve attempted to push my way through this week, this was a page turner. I loved the mismatched family vignette. I loved how awkward they all were. The reader sympathises with Torunn as she tries to make sense of the messed-up family she barely even knew existed.
The only disappointments were that I could have done with a tiny bit more happening, and the twist was a bit tame/tired. It turns out that their father is not their father at all, but their half-brother. This was really difficult to get my mathematically and logically-challenged brain around. So Anna is destined to marry the son of a man (I forgot the fake-father’s name, he’s pretty much just referred to as ‘Father’ in the novel). She marries him for appearances. Instead, she is in love with his father, her father-in-law. Her three sons are actually her father-in-law’s, making the fake-father their half-brother. Get it? It took me a few minutes. So no actual incest involved, and I was glad about that. SO MANY books have incest as the twist. I’m past caring. It’s not a twist anymore. Give it up. Find a new twist. This novel basically used the same twist with legal rather than biological incest though, so I was a tad let down about that, especially since I was so impressed with it up until that point.