Monday, 30 May 2016

"Things like this weren't supposed to happen in Iceland, the most peaceful place on Earth"

Statistically there are more crime writers in Iceland than there are crimes and yet, in Night Blind Ragnar Jonasson creates a vividly real and believable landscape in which to set his uniquely Icelandic fiction. Night Blind is, in fact, the second book in the Dark Iceland series but the first that I've read and reviewed. 

The novel is set in Siglufjordur, a small fishing town in the North of Iceland, which is accessible only via a single road through a mountain tunnel. This setting, far from the more familiar location of Reykjavik is a clever device used to leverage the isolation and darkness of the dark Icelandic winter. If the setting also has an Agatha Christie quality this could be because Jonasson began his writing career by translating Christie's work into Icelandic!

As crime fiction goes this is recognisable, though utterly compelling, police procedural drama. Rookie policeman Ari Thor Arason leads the investigation which ensues when a policeman is shot dead outside a deserted house on the edge of town. What makes Night Blind stand apart is two fold. Firstly its the attention to characterisation; Siglufjordur is nigh on perfect as a stage that's home to a well conceived cast of characters that keep you guessing right to the end. Secondly its the superb pacing that drives the narrative throughout. Jonasson spares us the flab and offers up lean and slender prose that gets straight to the point. Night Blind is hugely readable and dangerously addictive.

This English version of Night Blind was translated by Quentin Bates who does an expert job at interpreting the Icelandic text (cover below) for an English speaking audience. I'm told that Icelandic literature is characterised by short staccato sentences which might appear as childish when translated but Bates manages to deal with this problem well. What edges are lost in translation is hard to say but the fact that Jonasson continues to work with Bates is a sign that he is in someway happy with the outcome.

So, Night Blind is a great piece of crime fiction that's succesfully been translated into English but that's not all. The novel also works at another level to keep the flames of the great 'Sagas of Icelanders' alive.

This is a novel steeped in Icelandic mythology from the isolated and remote settings that capture the wild and other worldly quality of this unique island to the hero detective Ari Thor Arason himself whose name references the hammer wielding Norse god. Jonasson knowingly writes for the domestic audience in Iceland at the same time as appealing to the global market by leveraging Iceland's idiosyncracies. 

If Icelandic culture can be said to be influenced by the tradition of the great Sagas then modern day crime authors like Jonasson can be seen to be continuing this great practice. Just as the great Sagas of the past galvanised the people of Iceland around a sense of national identity so too do Ragnar Jonasson, Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Arnaldur Indiridason contribute to a contemporary icelandic cultural identity. 

Anyway, I'm off to read Snow Blind (the first in the Dark Iceland series now)

I read this novel in paperback in May 2016 in part on the Harbour Arm in Margate.

Night Blind by Ragnar Jonasson, published by Orenda Books, 280 pages

No comments:

Post a Comment