Before I begin, I should perhaps explain. If this review makes no sense it is probably because I don’t really think there are any words to describe quite how this book made me feel. And I have used many, many words, but it still doesn’t feel enough. Absolutely amazing book.
Allis Hagtorn has left her life in the city behind, instead electing to take self imposed exile working as a housekeeper and gardener at a home on a remote and isolated fjord. She had expected to find herself in the employ of an older man, someone for whom upkeep of the property would be too much. However, Sigurd Bagge is nothing like she had expected. In his forties and of seemingly sound mind and body, she can see no reason why he should need her help. However, she is grateful of the job, thankful for a means to escape the mistakes of her past.
Bagge is a strange man, reluctant to spend any time with Allis, instructing her only on when he will take his meals and to take care of the garden, his wife’s pride and joy. He can give her no indication of when they should expect his wife’s return, asking only if she can stay for the summer, which Allis readily agrees to. For she is growing slightly obsessed with this strange man and as their interactions begin to change, as they spend more time together, Allis finds that she will do anything to convince Bagge to spend time with her, no matter how quickly his moods seem to change.
As their relationship begins to develop, they become more open with each other. But both have secrets they have been hiding, and sometimes simply seeking forgiveness for prior sins is not enough.
How do I begin? ‘The Bird Tribunal’ by Agnes Ravatn is quite unlike anything I have read before. From the very beginning, it was clear that to go on this journey with Allis meant setting aside my afternoon, because just like a fog across the fjord, the book surrounded me, enveloping my psyche so completely that I couldn’t step away before the final page was turned. From the hauntingly poetic narrative to the total isolation of the setting, Ravatn has created a piece of work that I am still not clear if I fully understood what I had read at the time and if I am honest, I find I am still questioning myself now.
There is a certain kind of ambiguity to the text, to the way it is written. Told in Allis’s voice, there are no speech marks anywhere. I’ll admit that this seemed a little confusing at first, but instead of pushing me out of the story, ejecting me, it forced me to concentrate more on what I was reading; to take the time to try and understand what was actually being said and what was merely happening inside of Allis’s head. And believe me that is a very clever ploy by Ravatn, feeding into and reflecting the whole atmosphere of the story itself. So much of the building tension and threat is based on Allis’s confusion, her misunderstanding and assumption of what is happening, that as a reader, I found myself in almost the exact same place. Second guessing what is fact and what is fiction.
Allis is what could safely be called an unreliable narrator. Confused and suffering emotional scars from the loss of her job and the breakdown of her marriage, she is a character already on a precipice. Used to being in the public eye, her shame has seen her go into hiding, but far from the escape she had pictured, the isolation of the fjord, and her limited contact with anyone other than Bagge, begins to see her psyche and her confidence slowly unravel. A lot of the tension and fear factor comes from being inside of Allis’s head as she starts to see something sinister in everything that happens. To second guess her employer and his motives. To doubt his integrity. She jumps at every shadow, every noise, adding to the level of apprehension for the reader and making this a psychological tale in the truest sense.
And Bagge? He is a man keeping many secrets, his mood swings so extreme. Despite wanting Allis’s company, he seems determined to push her away, to scare her into leaving, so much so that you just know he is hiding something. But just how sinister is his secret? For me Bagge was an introvert to Allis’s more extrovert nature. While he craved solitude as penance for a perceived sin, Allis needed and craved his company. No matter how badly he treated her, she sought to impress him, every action carefully planned to try and intrigue and engage this very solitary man. And, like Allis, I wanted him to reappear too, wanted to know more about him, to learn his story.
Bagge is a man of multiple personalities. Engaging one minute, he is distant the next. His moods range from placid to highly aggressive and can turn on a dime. The volatility and unpredictable nature of the man create a sense of danger which is almost as potent from his absences as it is when he is in the room with Allis. And the implicit threat which comes when they talk of the shopkeeper’s disappearance make you wonder the true nature of the man. But as their obsessive relationship gathers momentum, you know that this cannot ever end well.
I have seen others tell of a feeling of claustrophobia which comes from the text. Despite the open space in which the book is set, it is truly isolating. With very little deviation, the story centres around Allis and Bagge, other characters appearing only fleetingly on the page. Most of the action takes place in the house, and even when Allis tries to run or to leave for the city, she is drawn back so quickly that is almost as though she has never truly left, that much like Bagge, she is tied to the house. And because Bagge spends so much time shut away, almost everything seems to happen in Allis’s head, confining the readers experience even more and adding to the sensation of the walls closing in. But perhaps this is an extrovert’s perspective. As an introvert, the idea of isolation and solitude doesn’t bother me in the way it does Allis, and wouldn’t play into my fear centre in the same way if I wasn’t seeing it through her eyes, feeling it through her thoughts.
So much of the chilling imagery throughout adds to that building sense of foreboding. From the outset it is clear that something is not right in the house or with Bagge. From the eponymous ‘bird tribunal’, to Allis’s discovery of the small birds caught in the traps she had set for catching mice, Ravatn manages to slowly build the tension to a breath-catching crescendo, before an almost mystical feeling of calm settles across the narrative in the final pages.
Bringing me back to where I started. Second guessing myself. Was what I read real, or was it all in Allis’s head? Is she a simple victim of an increasingly obsessive relationship with Bagge, or is there more to her character? Is the serenity we see in her at the end an indication of the final detachment from her own emotions, or was she already so broken to begin with and everything we have seen has just been the slow devolution of her sanity?
Perhaps you should read it and decide for yourself. A truly stunning, haunting and chilling 5 star read and such a wonderful translation by Rosie Hedger. Seamless.