Fatal Isolation: The Haunting Landscapes of Nordic Noir

Reviews ofAgnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal, Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind, Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s Why Did You Lie?, and Antti Tuomainen’s Dark As My Heart

Reviewed by Lee Horsley

Some of the most riveting Scandinavian crime fiction torments its characters with the disorienting effects of an isolated, threatening landscape. Crimeculture highly recommends four of the best recent Nordic noir novels (translated into English 2014-16), each of which enthrals readers with the peculiar power of such a setting: Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal, Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind, Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s Why Did You Lie? and Antti Tuomainen’s Dark as My Heart.

Other countries can, of course, provide crime writers with similarly inhospitable terrain – environments so remote and hostile that they inflict their own kind of psychological damage. Crimeculture has recently, for example, reviewed Jane Harper’s The Dry, a powerful novel in which human greed and hatred play out amidst the devastating effects of a drought that is destroying an entire Australian community. In the UK, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s literary thriller, His Bloody Project, brilliantly represents a brutally controlled crofting community in the nineteenth-century Scottish Highlands, a place so cut off that escape seems impossible.

Scandinavian crime writers, however, have proven themselves exceptionally adept at fictionally exploiting the rich resources of their native landscapes. A few years ago, a piece in The Economist (Sept 2012) ascribed the success of the Nordic crime-writing boom in part to the novelty of the locations, to writers’ ability to provide “a sense of place—the more distinctive and unusual the better.” But in truth the strength of Scandinavian locations is less to do with novelty than with sheer evocative power – with the pressure of the elements and the extremities of experience endured in places far removed from conventional society. The novels reviewed here – from Norway, Iceland and Finland – give us harrowing dramas enacted in darkly mysterious forests and secluded estates overlooking spectacular fjords, on rocky stacks in a raging sea, or on the sea’s edge in a fishing village made inaccessible by blizzards, mountains and avalanches. In all four novels, the drama is intensified by the claustrophobic sense of entrapment somewhere so isolated that the conditions of ordinary life no longer apply.


Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal

In Agnes Ravatn’s dark, mesmerising novel, The Bird Tribunal (published in Norway 2013, trans 2016), the natural world both surrounds and drives the tense human drama. Escaping her past life, Allis Hagtorn takes a job housekeeping and gardening for Sigurd Bagge – a strangely silent man living on the edge of a silent forest above an isolated Norwegian fjord. As she sets about trying to bring his disorderly garden under control, she begins to believe that she might also transform herself, that “there was salvation to be found.”

But salvation is no simple matter, and Ravatn’s taut, haunting prose generates a mounting sense of dread. She draws together several strands of myth and gothic archetype, with hints of Bluebeard and Rebecca. But most of all, emanating from the landscape itself, there are the themes and emotions of Norse mythology – salvation and transformation, death, guilt and retribution. The fjord and forest are beautiful but increasingly charged with sinister meanings.

As Allis walks into the “silent forest of roots and pinecones”, she feels almost entirely separated from the outside world: “living here was like ceasing to exist,” except in an increasingly menacing world of shared stories. Bagge recounts his dream of an ominous bird tribunal convening in the depths of the forest, a vision of twelve judges in bird masks sitting in silence and condemning him, charging him with “skemdarvig”, a crime so vile that no atonement is possible. Allis in turn tells him the story of Balder and Loki, of violence, revenge and the potential for evil: “Old guilt… destroyed by fire and swallowed by the sea,” a dragon that “sweeps through the air…with human corpses nestled among its feathers”.

Who are Bagge and Allis in this mythic world? Our sense of foreboding grows as the story is ever more strongly infused by the threatening, hallucinatory imagery of the ancient Eddas. The Bird Tribunal is a fascinating novel that lingers in readers’ minds long after they have finished reading.


Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind

The five novels of Ragnar Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series, which debuted in Iceland in 2010, have received much deserved critical acclaim since the first English translations began to appear: Snowblind and Nightblind in 2015, Blackout, Rupture and Whiteout in 2016-17.

In the gripping Snowblind, he creates the setting that defines the essence of his vision of “Dark Iceland” – the tiny, isolated fishing village of Siglufjördur, “at the edge of the northern ocean,” as stunningly beautiful as it is claustrophobic, surrounded by a ring of mountains and inaccessible for much of the year except via a small tunnel. The protagonist, a young outsider and rookie policeman, Ari Thor, proves himself capable of patient investigation and sharp insights, but is hampered throughout by his sense of not belonging to this alien environment: “He felt like a stranger… a traveller who had forgotten to buy a return ticket.”

A translator of Agatha Christie, Jonasson is skilled in the construction of an absorbing mystery story. Snowblind, like the later novels in the Dark Iceland series, is an exceptionally well-crafted piece of classic detective fiction, with the enclosed space of Siglufjördur providing a circumscribed cast of characters, harbouring secrets and concealing hidden connections that must be uncovered if the mystery is to be solved. What most distinguishes Jonasson’s series, however, is an environment that throughout the novel applies its own frightening and unpredictable pressures.

Iceland has provided some of the most haunting and life-threatening landscapes of contemporary crime fiction. Even the Reykjavík-set novels of Arnaldur Indridason’s are shadowed by memories of lives lost in the mountains and frozen fjords. In Jonasson’s Snowblind, the destructive depths of the Icelandic winter – freezing darkness, blizzards, avalanches – all reinforce the sense of dangerous entrapment. When a murder is committed the scene of the crime has a perverse beauty: the “blood-red snow that formed a halo” around the body of the victim. The mysteriousness of the scene adds to our sense of the inhuman otherness of a savage natural world that thwarts Ari Thor’s investigation at every turn: “This peaceful little town was being compressed by the snow, no longer a familiar winter embrace but a threat like never before.”


Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s Why Did You Lie?

In the novels of Yrsa Sigurdardottir, the perils of desolate landscapes are both natural and supernatural. Crimeculture’s review article, “Listening to the Ghosts”, discussed Sigurdardottir’s I Remember You, with its evocation of supernatural terrors in a near-deserted village in the Westfjords. In the equally brilliant Why Did You Lie? (published in Iceland 2013; trans 2016), isolated settings are again used to unsettle characters’ sense of reality, to make them fear they are facing dangers beyond their comprehension.

A more traditional mystery, Why Did You Lie? draws together the narratives of three apparently unrelated groups of people, all of whom to some extent feel that they are cut off from the normal world. A policewoman, Nina, whose husband lingers on life-support after trying to kill himself, searches for answers in dimly lit basement archives, feeling ever more isolated and paranoid: “If she screamed, it was unlikely anyone would hear her. Except the person hiding behind her, among the dusty old archives.” A family returns from holiday to find that their house guests have unaccountably vanished and that things at home are not quite as they left them; their unease is increased by a webcam recording of their country chalet, a place from which their holiday visitors departed in silently recorded panic and that now fills them with “an inexplicable sense of dread.”

Most chilling of all are the sections set at Thridarangar lighthouse, which sits atop treacherous stacks of rock off the Icelandic coastline. Four strangers struggle to retain their sanity while they await rescue from “a windswept spike of rock in the middle of a raging sea.” The fog is closing in, disorienting them and making the world seem incomprehensible. Every shadow and shape is transformed into a threatening presence, and their fog-bound inability to grasp what is actually happening becomes one of the central images in Sigurdardottir’s compelling narrative about a nightmarish, deranged plan for revenge. They are pursued by an adversary who follows no rules that they can understand. On the bleak rock stack, threatened by both violence and the deadly drop into freezing seas, characters lose all sense of the boundaries between real and unreal, reasonable and unreasonable: “Perhaps it’s because fog doesn’t follow any rules. The truth gets lost.”


Antti Tuomainen’s Dark As My Heart

Antti Tuomainen is a poet as well as a novelist, and in Dark As My Heart, his second novel to be translated into English (published in Finland 2013; trans 2015), the main part of the narrative takes place in a vividly realized coastal setting. Aleksi Kivi has spent two decades trying to find out what happened to his mother, who disappeared when he was thirteen. Believing the millionaire Henrik Saarinen to be guilty, he leaves the city for Saarinen’s rural estate – committing himself to the dangerous and formidable task of unmasking a murderer.

His quest takes him to Kalmela Manor, which stands above the sea an hour or so from Helsinki, “in a spot that had been thought desirable in 1850.” The estate – nearly three hundred acres of it – is forested in every direction, “dark and dense even in autumn”, with rocks, heavy thickets and steep stone cliffs. The wind is an almost constant presence, but when it calms, the silence is eerie. Aleksi hopes the house will tell him something about what happened twenty years ago, but it, too, remains silent and uncommunicative: “If I’d sometimes wondered at what solitude was, it became clear to me that evening. Solitude was a deserted estate, dead people, the sound of my own breathing.”

The place itself embodies both the capacity of power to imprison and Aleksi’s inner sense that he has been held captive by a fixed idea – in Saarinen’s words, it is “As if in the middle of this beautiful place on this bright day there’s a dark cloud over you and a dark, bottomless vacuum beneath you…” Like Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal, Dark As My Heart gives us a small cast of characters enacting a grim, wholly engrossing drama in the claustrophobic isolation of a world that intensifies the internal sense of a prison “between your ears”. Tuomainen’s lyrical, evocative prose creates a stunningly effective story of desire, obsession and revenge.