Book Reviews

Book Review: Anne B. Ragde’s ‘Das Lügenhaus’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Creepy character development paints a convincing vignette of an estranged family with plenty of skeletons in the closet.

Das Lügenhaus: Roman (Die Lügenhaus-Serie 1) (German Edition) - Kindle  edition by Ragde, Anne B., Haefs, Gabriele. Literature & Fiction Kindle  eBooks @

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.

Book Reviews

Book Review: Fettnäpfchenführer Norwegen

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Daunted by the ridiculous title in German? That’s German for you. I’ll have to dissect this first. ‘Reiseführer’ is the usual name for a guide book (literally ‘ride leader’), and the Fettnäpfchenführer series is a riff on this. An idiom in Germany for embarrassing yourself in front of other people through ignorance (equivalent to a ‘foot in mouth moment’, or ‘putting your foot in it’ in English), is ‘ins Fettnäpfchen treten’, literally meaning ‘to step into the fat bowl’. Therefore, the title Fettnäpfchenführer hints at the alternative kind of travel guide this is: guiding you through Norway by using a provincial Bavarian protagonist to highlight all the faux pas of intercultural communication. Somehow, he manages to step into every fat bowl along the way.

I enjoyed this so much I read it in two days despite it being in my second language. The current lockdown certainly had a hand in that too. I’ve recently taken an interest in Norwegian because it’s pretty hot for translation right now: more novels have been translated from Norwegian or Swedish in recent years than German. So-called ‘Nordic Noir’ is extremely a la mode since Jo Nesbø and Stieg Larsson’s astronomical successes in English. I’ve spent the last year and a half brushing up on my French and I can now hold a conversation, as long as it’s about something on the Duolingo course. But then I realised that Germanic languages are far closer to my heart. Norwegian and German are fairly similar, around a third of the words are cognates or near-cognates. That doesn’t mean that another good chunk of the words aren’t a bit far-flung and difficult to spell, because the Norwegians seem to take the same laid-back approach to pronouncing their language as they do to everything else. Another complicating factor is that there isn’t really even one Norwegian language anyway. There are two main written Norwegian dialects, and most schoolchildren learn to write and spell in one or the other – Nynorsk and Bokmål, but there is an almost endless number of local dialects whether you’re in the north, south, east or west of the country. Norwegian is also extremely similar to Danish, at least written Danish. All other Scandinavians agree that Danish pronunciation is another kettle of fish entirely. Denmark and Norway were joined in a fairly unequal partnership for centuries, and Norway’s written language is based on written Danish, meaning they are (almost) mutually intelligible to this day.

But I digress. Each chapter of this charming book is split into two or three sections. The narrative comes first. The author, Julia Fellinger, has invented an unlikely protagonist to guide us through Norwegian customs and culture by showing us what not to do. ‘Stefan’, a detective sent to Norway by his boss to investigate the theft of an Edvard Munch painting from its private owner in Germany, is eager to learn but somehow keeps alienating the locals by putting his big German foot in it. This book taught (reinforced?) a lot for me about Germans as well as introducing me to Norwegian culture, because these travel guides are specifically intended for German audiences and consistently compare the two cultures. The author warns the reader, basically, to take a chill pill: no shouting across the aisle at supermarket employees, don’t just get naked in the sauna or by the side of the lake, no road rage please, don’t expect a direct answer, learn to sugar-coat things a little, don’t cut the queue, don’t point out the roads are better in Germany etc. etc.

The narrative part of the book was definitely not what I expect in a travel guide, because the author isn’t even relating her own experiences about Norway, at least not in an autobiographical context. But it’s absolutely charming and really works, with each short chapter describing a different situation tourists are likely to find themselves in, such as going to the Vinmonopol (state-owned wine shops), renting a Hytte (holiday cabin), hiking in the Fjells (mountains) and so on. The second section of each chapter describes the customs behind Stefan’s faux pas, which builds the suspense nicely because the reader is often left wondering along with Stefan just what went wrong. Why is he met with disappointment when he turns up at a dinner party with flowers and chocolates for the hosts? Why is the wine shop closed at 2:30pm? Why shouldn’t he mention the EU?

The answers are respectively: Norwegians expect you to bring alcohol to a dinner party, because it’s so expensive the host either cannot or will not cover the costs of their guest’s drinks themselves, the wine shop is closed at 2:30pm because it must be the day before a festdag, a national holiday, and you definitely shouldn’t mention the EU in polite conversation because it’s likely to illicit a strong reaction either way. And Norwegians don’t like having or showing their strong reactions to anything, so it’s likely to be awkward all round. But you don’t find this out until the end of the chapter, which leads to a feeling of bumbling through Norway with the same amount of ignorant bonhomie as Stefan. I learned a lot along the way, and now I feel almost ready for my first adventure into the most expensive wilderness on Earth. When we can travel again, though- whenever that is.