Translated by Megan E. Turney
This debut novel is already a prize winner in Madsen’s home country of Denmark, and it’s easy to see why.
At first we love to hate the protagonist, Hannah, an established writer of much praised and exquisitely crafted prose novellas, who has fallen into that mid-career slump; her backlist is no longer selling, the public have lost interest in her. Only her long-suffering publisher, Bastian, still has confidence in her it seems.
She is at the Book Fair, and her signed copies aren’t selling. Her attention strays to a bestselling author being interviewed on the stage. Jørn Jensen churns out crime thrillers to a public who lap them and him up. Hannah, incensed by what she’s hearing about his craft, finds herself throwing a book at him! Grabbing one of his books she exclaims:
This is mediocrity with page numbers. Poor taste is fair enough, but mediocrity that knows it’s mediocre and doesn’t strive to be anything more than that, or to be a little bit different – that’s the real threat to our society. This book represents all those who don’t bother to put in even the smallest amount of effort, those content to just sit on the cliché shelf. And make money out of it. Any idiot can write a book like this in a month.
Jørn pauses. He and the audience hold their breath.
‘Okay then. If any idiot can do it, that must mean that you can too?’
Bastian accepts the challenge on Hannah’s behalf, and the world goes mad for it. Bastian also packs her off to Iceland for nature and silence, to get away from it to cure her writer’s block. A friend of his family who lives in the country will put her up for a month. So, she finds herself waiting to be picked up at Keflavik airport, her baggage clanking with the bottles of wine she filled her case with.
It’s some time before Ella turns up, and they soon realise that they can’t easily understand each other. Many city dwellers speak Danish and English, but Ella only speaks Icelandic, however, she can understand some English and write a little. The fishing village of Húsafjörður is a six-hour drive from Reykjavik, and they arrive in darkness. Despite Ella’s hospitality, Hannah doesn’t want to stay and rings Bastian, but he persuades her to give it a go.
Hannah manages to quiz Ella about her family a little. She says she has no children, but is very proud of her teenaged nephew Thor. Ella’s family all live close by.
The next day, Hannah goes for a walk, and encounters the village’s homeless man, Gisli, who shows her to the only pub (there are no cafés), where she meets Viktor, the town’s policeman – off duty, who tells her that he has little to police. She goes home and tries to write, washing her efforts down with some of the wine she brought, but half a page of going nowhere plot is meagre progress.
The next morning, she goes downstairs to discover Ella sobbing. ‘Thor er dáinn,’ she weeps. Thor is dead. An accident at the harbour, he drowned. Vigdis, Ella’s sister had called. Ægir, Thor’s father, found him, and brought him back to the house, to display for a memorial, delaying the routine autopsy Viktor has ordered. Hannah accompanies Ella to the house, and left with Thor, reaches over the corpse and spots a bump behind his ear. Ægir isn’t pleased that a stranger would touch his son’s corpse and Hannah backs off quickly apologising, but is able to tell Viktor that it could be murder.
From hereon in, things will start to get very complex and very dark, like the lengthening nights, and sadly, this tragedy is just the thing that Hannah needs to get writing. Thus the book she has wagered to write begins to take shape, taking this crime as its inspiration. But, as she is no expert at plot-driven fiction, she needs to keep investigating, much to Viktor’s annoyance. As you might imagine, the secrets run deep in this village, and they run the deepest in Ella’s family it seems. Viktor will have to accept Hannah’s help, and Hannah will find reserves of strength and emotion that as a de facto alcoholic, she never knew she had.
To explain more about the murder would be criminal, but I can talk a bit about the evolution of Hannah from unlikeable protagonist with an acid-tongue into a woman more at ease with herself and beginning to develop some empathy. As the book progresses, we not only want Hannah to solve the crime with Viktor, but we want her to achieve success in the challenge. However, most of all, we want her to make a friend – something she doesn’t really have apart from Bastian, and she finds one in Margrét, Viktor’s wife. But then Jørn turns up to complicate things – research for his new novel.
I very much enjoyed Megan Turney’s translation which also has to cover the way that Ella and Hannah converse, through Ella’s mix of broken English and Icelandic words, which works really well for the English reader.
Madsen manages to find a good balance between the tragic and the comic. There are many moments of humour: between Hannah and Bastian, Hannah and Viktor, Hannah and Jørn, Hannah and Gisli, Hannah and ‘Leather Vest’ the barman for instance, but there is tragedy too as we’ve seen, and characters such as Ægir are only ever portrayed in darkness. Alongside all this is an essential masterclass in writing a crime novel, but done so it sneaks up on you. The book within the book is fun, but newbie crime author Hannah discovers that writing it isn’t as straightforward as she imagined. Maybe Jørn has something after all!
It’ll be fascinating to see what Jenny Lund Madsen comes up with next. Will Hannah become the next Jessica Fletcher? Or will she write something completely different? Whatever direction she goes in, I’d love to read it.
Source: Review copy – thank you! Orenda hardback, 300 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)