3.5 stars for this chilling tale by Ragnar Jonasson, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.
Icelandic writer Ragnar Jonasson excels in writing about lonely people in isolated settings. This novel is his bleakest yet. Central character Una decides to reset her life, leaving her teaching post in Reykjavik in order to spend a dark winter in a remote Icelandic village of less than a dozen residents, to teach two pupils. The remoteness of the location on the Langanes Peninsula is underscored by setting the novel in the 1980s – no internet, no mobile phones – and since Una’s car is damaged upon arrival in the village, and she finds herself lodging in the attic of a house without even a television for news, Una is utterly cut off from the world.
Gradually an atmosphere of quiet menace and eeriness builds up and as a reader I found myself galloping through the book for answers – what is the tragedy in Una’s childhood that has moulded her life? Is her attic room haunted? Do the villagers have a secret, and are they actually hostile to Una – and if so, why? Is Una an alcoholic, mentally ill or for some other reason an unreliable narrator? Jonasson keeps the reader guessing throughout.
For me, the book fell slightly flat at the end. Perhaps reader satisfaction with the story is bound to hinge on whether a supernatural element is wanted or not. Also, I found Una’s decision to pursue a relationship with Thor inauthentic – she has gone to a village where there are fewer than ten adult residents, so surely she went there with no expectation of a romantic and/or sexual relationship, yet she decides she wants a relationship with Thor immediately, before they have spoken more than a few words, and without her even seeing him clearly on the dark night they meet. It rather smacks of ‘he’ll do’ and didn’t fit with my understanding of her character. It is possible that I am being ungenerous in this review: at a time when I am not allowed further than the narrow boundaries of my Scottish local authority area, it may be that Una’s restricted life echoes my own too closely. The flat tone of the writing complements the bleakness of Una’s surroundings well but made for quite a hard read in time of covid lockdown.
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for allowing me to read this book in return for an honest review.