Reposted with permission from Reviewing the Evidence
Many thrillers are focused on the future: something terrible is about to happen; someone has to stop it. The clock is ticking, and the fuse is growing shorter, minute by minute. Then there are stories that are focused on something terrible that happened in the past, an event that left the potential for violence hidden below the surface like a land mine. You know it’s there, somewhere, and every step you take could trigger the detonator and set it off. That’s the animating tension in the first adult novel by Agnete Friis, who previously co-authored the Nina Borg series with Lene Kaaberbøl.
Ella Nygaard is an unlikely heroine. She’s wary and cynical about the social system that provides her a place to live and counseling for her debilitating anxiety attacks, but strips her of her dignity and threatens, always, to take the one thing from her that matters: her son, Alex. She knows Denmark’s social system all too well, having been a ward of the state since she was seven years old. That was the year her father murdered her mother somewhere in the dunes on the wild north coast of Jutland. She was never able to reconstruct what happened, not in the days following the murder when police tried to coax an eyewitness account from a traumatized child, not now–but she feels it in her body, tension and tingling in her fingers, followed by a full-blown storm that knocks her off her feet. After one of those attacks, she is hospitalized and learns, on her release, that her son has been placed with foster parents in the countryside. She coaxes a neighbor to drive her to their farm, and then to help her and her son escape north, to the neglected seaside house her paternal grandmother has left her. It’s her only refuge, but it’s also the place where the knowledge of what happened when her father killed her mother lies buried.
We approach that moment from two directions: from flashback chapters about her father’s affair with a bewitching woman, and about her mother, who left a millennial religious sect to marry for love but can’t escape the deeply embedded belief that she is damned. In the present, Ella has met a childhood friend and acquired a strange acquaintance – an eccentric woman artist who is losing her home and moves in with Ella and her son, a temporary visitor who can’t be dislodged. The three of them create a strange sort of family haunted by a sense that something is deeply wrong.
Friis has stretched her neck out with a prickly protagonist who has resigned herself to life on welfare, always struggling to get by without money, often focused on getting a packet of smokes or a bottle of vodka. She loves her son fiercely, but does things that puts their future at risk–and puts her one step closer to triggering that buried memory. Though veteran mystery readers may not be entirely surprised by the denouement of this complex and multi-layered mystery, they may well be caught off guard by a character who stubbornly does everything she can to be unlovable, yet somehow becomes an enormously sympathetic guide to the experience of lives lived on the fringes of society.