Today I’m delighted to share my thoughts on The Girl Who Died, the latest novel from Ragnar Jónasson. I’ve loved the author’s Dark Iceland and Hidden Iceland series so have been looking forward to this new mystery for a while. My thanks go to publisher Michael Joseph who furnished me with an early copy. Here’s what the book is all about:
About the Book
‘TEACHER WANTED ON THE EDGE OF THE WORLD . . .’
Una knows she is struggling to deal with her father’s sudden, tragic suicide. She spends her nights drinking alone in Reykjavik, stricken with thoughts that she might one day follow in his footsteps.
So when she sees an advert seeking a teacher for two girls in the tiny village of Skálar – population of ten – on the storm-battered north coast of the island, she sees it as a chance to escape.
But once she arrives, Una quickly realises nothing in city life has prepared her for this. The villagers are unfriendly. The weather is bleak. And, from the creaky attic bedroom of the old house where she’s living, she’s convinced she hears the ghostly sound of singing.
Una worries that she’s losing her mind.
And then, just before midwinter, a young girl from the village is found dead. Now there are only nine villagers left – and Una fears that one of them has blood on their hands . .
When Una sets out to change her life, she really goes all out. ‘Teacher wanted on the edge of the world …’ They aren’t kidding. Skálar is about as far into the North-East of Iceland it is possible to get without falling off the island and landing in the arctic circle … Add into that the fact that she is heading north to be a Teacher over winter, in a country where the winter nights are already so long the darkness barely surrenders to daylight, plus Skálar being such a tiny and closeted community, and the scene is set for a story which is rich in atmosphere, tension, mystery and who whole heap of spooky goings on.
Now when I say Skálar is tiny, I really mean it. In the UK we’d call it a hamlet. If we were being generous, that is. A village of ten people, at least until Una arrives, and two of them are her students. That whole sense of everyone knowing everyone else’s business is amplified tenfold, to that whole sense of apprehension that accompanies Una’s arrival in the village, and Ragnar Jónasson uses this to perfect effect. She really is the outsider and that natural trust of such a close knit community, all of whom have long standing ties to Skálar, make it hard for her to really settle and makes for a nerve jangling ride for readers too.
But that’s not the only reason, and Skálar is a place that has a dark history, a place nursing many secrets, some of which surround the house that Una is now to call home. Everything about it is pitch perfect, from the long nights, to the chill winds from the sea, adding to that sense of unease that begins very early on in the story. This is part mystery, part ghost story, and Una is soon to discover that it is not only the living she has to fear … That element of the story is well played, tapping into many of the classic tropes of a supernatural mystery, leaving you wondering just how much of it is real and how much of it Una’s imagination, and trust me when I say there are many reasons to question her sanity, and not just her growing sense of isolation. The more we learn of Una, of her tragic past, the more reason we have to be wary of what she thinks she sees.
Intertwined with Una’s story is a true mystery – the disappearance of a man from Reykjavik. How this ties into this very remote village on the very far reaches of Iceland remains to be seen, but there are passages throughout the novel with are slowly revealed, a first person testimony regarding a very heinous crime. They may seem disconnected from the story at first, and I found myself second guessing who, if anybody, the narrator of these passages might be, but the author allows them to intertwine and tangle, and eventually they start to reveal a much clearer picture of what has happened and what comes to pass. The revelations may be shocking, the reality of the story somewhat melancholic, but then that almost gothic style tragedy really is the undertone of the whole novel and it works well.
If you have come to this looking for one of Ragnar Jónasson’s hallmark police procedurals, then you are likely to be surprised. As always, he captures the essence of Iceland’s remote and isolated locations perfectly, making part of me crave the solitude it may offer whilst the other, larger part, is thankful of the anonymity of the larger community I live in. With The Girl Who Died, aided by the flawless translation by Victoria Cribb, Ragnar Jónasson provides us with a tragedy laden and undulating mystery, full of atmosphere and with brilliantly crafted and yet flawed characters who keep you as much on edge as the spectral nature of Una’s unexpected roommate.
About the Author
Ragnar Jónasson was born in Reykjavík, Iceland, where he works as a writer and a lawyer and teaches copyright law at Reykjavík University. He has previously worked on radio and television, including as a TV news reporter for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, and, from the age of seventeen, has translated fourteen of Agatha Christie’s novels. He is an international Number One bestseller.