I’ve added the P because this book won’t be on the market until November, but having read an advanced copy, I wanted to make sure that those who will be interested have this release on their radar. So here’s a preview-review.
DEATH OF A NIGHTINGALE
By Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis
translated by Elisabeth Dyssegaard
Soho, November 2013
The prickly, principled, and not-very-personable nurse, Nina Borg, who featured in The Boy in the Suitcase and Invisible Murder appears again in a story that not only crosses borders (as the previous stories in this excellent Danish series did) but time periods. The authors have carried off this difficult task with brio. How two writers can put together the many pieces of such a tricky narrative suggests they’re very good at plotting and at the finer-grained finishing work of sanding and smoothing the edges so that they are imperceptible. They respect their readers enough to assume we can play a part in putting the pieces together, too.
Nina Borg has a penchant to put her patients’ welfare above her family’s needs, partly because she’s strongly and rather irritatingly principled but largely because she is emotionally unable to allow herself to connect with her husband and children; she inevitably lets them down so that they will reject her and she won’t have to confront her own vulnerability. As this story opens, she’s living apart from her family but seeking a bit of human company with a co-worker who is as messed up as she is.
But wait a moment: it actually starts with the transcript of an audio file. Someone is interviewing an elderly woman about something that happened in the past, something painful. She’s irritated by his eagerness to probe into the pain, but decides to tell it as a fairy tale, a grim and dark tale about jealousy, vengeance, and violence visited on entire generations of a family. It’s a fairy tale, she says, from Stalin land. This scene is brief, but is the first bit of a strand that threads its way through the novel.
There is another short scene before we get to Nina. A woman named Natasha is being taken by kind and boring Danish policeman to a building where eventually her fate will be decided and she will most likely be sent back to Ukraine, but not just yet. As she climbs out of the police car she overhears two men speaking her language and, with little warning and a lot of cunning, manages to attack her police escort and make a run for it.
Natasha’s daughter is staying at the Coal-House Camp, a Red Cross camp for asylum seekers and detainees awaiting deportation. She has been separated from her mother, who had put up with abuse from a Danish fiance until he made moves on her daughter, at which point she stuck him with a knife and landed herself in prison and her daughter in official limbo.
Natasha wants her daughter with a visceral, mother-tigerish passion, but so does someone else, someone willing to do violence to the girl. Nina finds herself, once again, responsible for a child whose safety is imperiled and who cannot count on the state’s protection because her status as a non-citizen leaves cracks for her to slip through.
Another story unfolds in parallel to Natasha’s desperate efforts to be reunited with her daughter. It’s a disturbing, difficult story about a painful part of history we’d rather forget or measure out in safely dispassionate numbers: six million, maybe seven. Or perhaps that’s an exaggeration, maybe only 2.5 million or 3.3.
In this story, we don’t know about millions, we only know a few of these people, Ukrainians who have little to eat, who are instructed to shun those who have fallen afoul of Stalin’s rules and have been declared “former human beings,” a designation that renders them insignificant as they starve to death in their midst, outcasts for political reasons.
It would be so much easier if we were allowed to take a wide-angle view where people become small, mere specks in a set of numbers. We see it from the perspective of a girl who has known no other way of life, whose sister is a true believer, whose father gets caught up in the brutal machinery of power, whose family is torn apart while facing starvation. At times the story seems from centuries ago, or from one of the grimmest of Grimm’s fairy tales, where suffering is epic and retribution unabashedly brutal. There’s something folkloric, yet inescapably horrifying about these 20th century experiences that force us to acknowledge on a human scale the suffering of some of the millions of Ukrainians who were condemned to starvation because of ideology.
In modern Denmark, an asthmatic child, a principled if neurotic nurse, a single-minded mother, a compromised Ukrainian journalist, a Danish law enforcement officer, and an old woman who posesses mythic properties all play out their roles in a conflict that has it origins in the human costs paid by two sisters during a cruel and epic tragedy that played out not so long ago and not so far away.
Kaaberbøl and Friis have taken as their series subject the ways that conflicts in European history reverberate in the present as the borders are erased and redrawn. They introduce us to people who experience prejudice, poverty, and desperation in a modern European state where people expect comfort and safety and are weary of being hospitable to strangers who bring trouble with them.
For all the painful reality this novel explores, it does so in a way that doesn’t lecture and doesn’t forget that stories matter. How can I put this? It seems wrong to say it’s entertaining or a pleasure to read, because it will make you sad and angry and ache with sympathy. Yet it’s a story that you will care about and the plot will propel you forward.
Perhaps the most accurate words for it are “thrilling” and “unforgettable.” It’s a very good book.