Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The Murder of Halland - Pia Juul



Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken.

'The sun blazed on the blue fjord. Everything looked so clear, though nothing was.'

Bess has been working late and never made it to bed. When she awakens, Halland is gone. The doorbell rings and having opened the door, Bess learns that Halland has been shot. 

This is the story of a crime, and there is a death and an accusation of murder within the first three pages, and possible suspects are revealved, but it is not an everyday crime novel; instead the author has taken a different route here. This novel explores the psychological aspects of loss experienced by Bess, her reactions, her erratic, confused thinking, her struggle to cope in the wake of her bereavement. 'My mind ran on two parallel tracks: one thinking about nothing, merely existing, the other churning out unpleasant explanations.' The author demonstrates how grief makes Bess's behaviour unusual, curious, almost absurd at times. 

Narrated throughout in the first person by Bess, a complex character, we have a stark and intimate portrayal of someone in the traumatic aftermath of losing their partner, experiencing a sudden bereavement and this causing them to re-examine their life. Bess almost immediately thinks about a previous loss that she has experienced in her life of someone close to her, and of the regret that that relationship is not a close one. Halland's death makes her rethink what, and who, is important in her life, and how well she really knew Halland, as she discovers his secrets. There is little input from the detective investigating the death, and when there is, it is all from Bess's perspective.

The author effectively conveys Bess's confusion and uncertainty in how to behave in the way that she asks herself many questions and doubts her ability to remember with clarity: 'What did we say to each other in those days? What did we ever say?' or to be able to decide what would be appropriate behaviour - how does one pick up the pieces and deal with the mundance after such a shock? 'At what point would I cancel an engagement?' 

I found this an interesting, challenging read. I was fascinated to learn how Bess would cope after the death of Halland, and at times I was surprised by her behaviour. In some ways I found the story a challenge, in that the author cleverly played with my expectations and perceptions of what would happen. This style results in a story that is, for me, both intriguing and yet at times difficult to actually enjoy and a little frustrating due to the strangeness; but having said that, it offers an intellectual challenge to the reader to experience something different to the norm, and I am glad to have been open to this experience and to have read this work. And something that struck me was that always there is the constant presence of nature in the background throughout the book, the glittering sunlight on the fjord.  

To paraphrase the commentator quoted in praise of the book, this novel (and the others published by this press) are almost like a chance to spend a couple of hours experiencing a thought-provoking European film but in literary form. It is a beautifully designed and presented volume.

This book won the most important literary prize in Denmark in 2009 when it was published there. It is part of the Small Epic series of three works being published this year by Peirene Press, who publish contemporary European literature they identify as 'throught provoking, well designed and short.'

Published in the UK by Peirene Press in June 2012. 189 pages.

Thanks to the publisher for kindly sending a copy of this book for an honest review.


Visit the Peirene website to find out about this book and the other works they are publishing.


4 comments:

  1. There are some days I think I could be happy reading nothing but Scandinavian crime novels. This one sounds like it has a lot to set it apart from the others, though, and it will definitely be going on my wishlist. Thanks for the review!

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    1. This is very different from the other Scandinavian crime novels I've read. I hope you will find it interesting if/when you try it.

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  2. This looks really good! Wonder if I could find it at the library?

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    1. I'm not sure on that one Karen but if I find out I'll report back. Thanks for your comment :)

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