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The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul

piajuul-montageBy the time they’ve reached the end of the novel, most readers of crime fiction expect to find the author has answered the key questions: who , committed the crime, how and why.

The Murder of Halland doesn’t turn those expectations of the genre completely on their head but it certainly shakes them out. This is  novel that starts with a murder. It features a detective and various suspects. It also includes a mystery about the dead man’s life.  But that’s the extent of any resemblance between your typical Nordic thriller and this short novel by the Danish author  Pia Juul. The pace is slower; the detective in charge of the case doesn’t have any of the personal flaws or family issues that so many of his literary profession seem to labour under. There isn’t any sense of urgency exhibited by the forces of law and order in fact and there is no revelatory scene at the end which draws all the threads together. One thing this novel does have in abundance is the feeling that like the dead man’s wife, we too are crawling our way towards understanding what happened and why.

The dead man’s wife is Bess, a writer who lives in a small Danish town with her second husband Halland. One morning she wakes to discover he is not in the house – she’s not particularly alarmed but shortly afterwards learns that he is lying dead in the market square not far away.  In the absence of other ideas, she becomes the prime suspect. In the course of 167 her life is opened up to examination and not just by the reader. The experience causes her to re-evaluate her marriage, her relationship with friends and with her estranged daughter from her first marriage. In the process she uncovers some mysteries about Halland – why was he visiting Bess’s pregnant niece and keeping paperwork and his laptop there? Why did he agree to pay the rental for this girl’s apartment ? Why did he transfer a substantial amount of money into Bess’s bank account shortly before his death?

Bess uncovers these mysteries through a series of chance encounters with neighbours, with her ex husband who turns up announced on the doorstep and declares he wants to sleep with her  Bess moves as in a dream through these encounters. Getting drunk on aquavit and ending up at a party kissing a neighbour doesnt get her any further towards the truth. Nor does watching any of the detective programs on television:

All I needed for happiness was a detective series. And there were lots to choose from. Simplicity was a virtue. First a murder, nothing too bestial. Then a police inspector. Insights into his or her personal problems, perhaps. Details about the victim. Puzzles and anomalies. Lines of investigation. Clues. Detours. Breakthrough. Case solved. Nothing like real life. I watched one thriller, then another. But as soon as the penny dropped I lost interest. The puzzle attracted me – the solution left me cold. Nothing like real life.

We are no nearer an answer to making sense of all of this by the time the book ends. The mysteries are not solved, the culprit is not uncovered though there are hints as to who it might have been. But that isn’t really the point for this isn’t a novel about a crime or the hunt for a killer. It’s about bereavement and the feeling of loss and regret about failed relationships and the way that, while we can live with someone daily sharing a house with them, there are still parts of their lives that can remain a closed book.

 

This was a book that was hard to put down. The writing style was short and direct with an enigmatic overtone and a strong sense of the bewilderment that is recognisable to anyone who has suffered the bereavement of a close relative or friend and keeps asking Why…..

Footnotes

The Book: The Murder of Halland was published by Pereine Press in 2012 as part The Small Epic series. Translated from the Danish original by Martin Aitken.

The Author: Pereine describes Pia Juul as one of Denmark’s foremost writers. Not knowing very much (if anything) about the Danish literary scene I can’t really judge if that’s true or a little bit of marketing hype. According to a website on the history of Nordic women’s writing I see that she is described as a poet, prose writer and translator. She has received several prizes for literature in Denmark. This is the first of her works to be translated into English

Why I read this: In the Chutes and Ladders challenge run by the Readers’ Room blog I ended up on a square which required me to read a debut novel. A trawl through my TBR uncovered this one – it had the added advantage I could add another country to my world literature reading list.

Other reviews: A number of other bloggers have read The Murder of Halland. Here a few I’ve come across.

Reading Matters review can be found here,

For Winstons Dad blog’s review  click here

David H’s blog’s review is here

HeavenAli reviewed the novel here 

January indulgences

PereineThe phrase ‘January sales’ has never excited me. You will never find me in those queues of who camp outside shops in the early hours of Boxing Day waiting for the doors to open on the incredible bargains inside. In fact I try not to set foot in shops if I can help it until January is well and truly over.

But I confess that I have been on a bit of a buying spree in the last week.  I blame this on the weather. Torrents of rain day after day creating rivers on the road surfaces and lakes in my garden where there is supposed to be grass. Because its been unseasonably warm for the last two months, the daffodils have started to flower way earlier than normal. The poor things must be wondering what’s hit them and shouldn’t they just go back to sleep? Can’t say I blame them. All I want to do is snuggle up in front of the fire. Its at times like this hibernation begins to sound attractive.

To console myself I indulged in some online book shopping. Last year was the first time I’d read anything under the Pereine Press imprint (White Hunger) by  Aki Ollikainen. It was a delight to the senses from the minute I saw the tastefully understated cover to the quality of the paper and of course the writing. I started 2016 with a hankering for more. As Pereine say, these are collectors items. Arriving soon I hope will be the first batch from their back catalogue to enrich my reading of literature in translation:

  • Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius. This is the third book published by Pereine in 2010 as part of their Female Voices theme.  
  • The Blue Room  by Hanne Orstavik published in 2014 in the Coming of Age series
  • The Murder of Halland by the Danish author Pia Juul. Pereine number  8 came out in 2012
  • Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal. Published in 2010, this is Pereine number 2 and is the first English translation of a Catalan classic. 
  • Under The Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda, a coming of age novel set in Libya before the Gaddafi era
  • Periene number 5 is Tomorrow Pamplona by the Dutch author Jan van Mersbergen

Now you’d think that little haul would be enough to satisfy anyone’s retain therapy needs. But not a bit of it. A few other acquisitions mysteriously made their way into the Booker Talk household this week. Namely The Daughter of Time and The Franchise Affair, both by Josephine Tey. She’s a Scottish author who wrote detective stories from the 1930s to her death in 1952. A new biography of her has just been released and reading to review of that last week convinced me she’s someone I’d like to get to know.

I’m not going to read any of these new purchases until at least May however because having agreed to join the Triple Dog Dare I’m going to spend the first four months of the year just reading what was already on my bookshelves come December 2015. But hey, none of these need more than a cosy shelf to sit on until they’re ready to be taken down and opened.

What have you all been buying lately?

 

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen

Bleak winterThe severe famine that brought havoc and destruction to nineteenth century rural Ireland has been well documented. Less well known is that more than 250,000 people (about 15% of the population) died when Finland experienced a similarly devastating famine in the late 1860s.

This is the background to Aki Ollikainen’s short, disquieting novel White Hunger. It’s 1867:  a year which saw the culmination of a series of poor harvests and a particularly harsh winter. Marja, a peasant farmer’s wife from the north, abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children Mataleena and Juho. This is a journey born out of desperation.  Their goal is to reach St Petersburg where rumour has it, bread can be found.  Not the stuff made pine bark, lichen and straw that they’ve been living on for months, but bread made with real flour.

The chances are slim that all the members of this little trio will survive. They are entirely dependent on the mercy of isolated households they find along the way.  Marja struggles through a featureless landscape, from one nameless village to another, from farmstead to almshouse to barn. She experiences the kindness of strangers who share their meagre rations and also the brutality of those who have become embittered by the ceaseless trail of beggars that knock on their doors. Denounced at times as a thief and a whore, what drives Marja onwards day after day is not desperation alone but also hope.

… one day, maybe, there will be talk of things other than bread, the lack of it, or hunger and diseases. People would talk about the coming of spring, the melting of the ice. About the swans someone spotted on the Holy Lake. About the neighbouring fields being flooded.

whitehunger_web_0_220_330The details of her journey are broken with scenes from a town where a doctor and a politician live in relative luxury. The doctor tries to shelter from the shock of the human tragedy, only occasionally feeling a sense of guilt; the politician puts his faith in a new railway to solve the problem. Not until the end of the novel does it become clear how these stories intersect.

Aki Ollikainen’s skill in this novella lies in the way he portrays a snow-bound landscape and ravaging hunger without becoming monotonous. Descriptions of the snow abound naturally along with vivid descriptions of the feeling of hunger. In spare and taut prose Ollikainen animates these forces of nature. Hunger becomes   “an angry cat scratching, scraping, sinking its teeth into the pit of her stomach” while frost  “spreads weedlike through the window frames along the timber joints across the wall.”  and snow pushes in through doors “like a cadaver.”

It takes strong nerves to read this book about people brought to the edge of existence. But steel yourself to do so and you won’t be disappointed. Bleak and harsh it certainly is but utterly memorable.

End Notes

Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen is published by Peirene Press (Peirene title number 16). Aki Ollikainen lives in northern Finland where he works as a reporter on a local newspaper. White Hunger is his debut work, published to great acclaim in his native country where he won multiple awards. He has written a second novel Musta satu but I haven’t been able to find out anything about this so far.

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