p/review of Death of a Nightingale

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 Death of a Nightingalethe 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.Nattergalens død

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.

recently reviewed . . .

It has been ages since I tallied up some of the new reviews appearing here and there. While I am too full of beginning-of-term tasks to do a full round-up, here are some recent ones.

Cold Hearts coverAt irresistible Targets, Michael Carlson reviews Gunnar Staalensen’s Cold Hearts, finding Varg Veum more like Ross Macdonald’s hero Lew Archer than Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. The theme of the book has to do with Norwegian social institutions being ill-suited to addressing serious crime and the chilliness of many Norwegian’s inner souls.

He also reviews Arnaldur Indridason’s Strange Shores, which sounds like a tour de force as Erlendur returns as protagonist. He comments that while many works of Scandinavian crime fiction concern the shift from a general social sense of responsibility to individualism, opening a gap through which crime can slip through, there is also a long tradition of exploring an individual “battling alone in a dark and cold world.” Which is a tradition our traditionalist Erlendur honors regularly.

At Euro Crime, Lynn Harvey does a brilliant job reviewing Savage Spring, the fourth book in Mons Kallentoft’s seasonally-themed police procedurals featuring the troubled Malin Fors. She finds it a compelling book, though the Alice-Sebold-like inclusion of the voices of the dead is something that might not suit every reader. (This time, it’s two children who have been killed in an explosion.) Fractured family relationships are examined keenly. As Harvy puts it, “like debris from the explosion in the square,fragments of parent/child relationships are examined throughout the book . . . [which] turn it from a police procedural into a much deeper story which is precisely what drew me to read Scandinavian crime fiction in the first place.”

Bernadette at Reactions to Reading wonders if she’s read too much crime fiction – or if Jussi Adler-Olsen is seeing just how far he can push cliches and readers’ patience with his latest, Redeption (apa A Conspiracy of Faith). Too much action, drama, and shallow psychological trauma; too many coincidences, too many pages! Though she enjoyed the first in the series, she may be giving this one up.

At International Noir Fiction, Glenn Harper reviews two books that take on the increasingly porous borders between Scandinavian nations and greater Europe. Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis look at the present-day legacy of the painful history of Ukraine in a tightly-plotted, tense, and dark mystery, Death of a Nightingale. Less successful in his estimation is Strange Bird by Anna Johnsson, a newly-translated entry in the Maria Wern series which concerns an epidemic of bird flu that has entered Sweden via Belarus.

Jose Ignacio Escribano reviews Finnish author Pekka Hiltunen’s Cold Courage, a pschologicalcold courage cover thriller set in London, the first in a series. Though a fairly compelling read, he found aspects of the plot (which concerns sexual violence, human trafficking, and the rise of far-right political parties) far-fetched and had some reservations about ethical issues addressed in the conclusion,

And at Crimepieces, Sarah reviews German author Jan Costin Wagner’s Light in a Dark House, the latest in his Finnish-based series which she admires very much, calling it “a slow but reflective series” that may not be for everyone, but is from her perspective among the best in the genre.  She certainly makes me want to give it a try.

Looking forward to . . .

Fire DanceI just got the Soho fall catalog in the mail and two books are ones of particular interest to anyone who reads Scandinavian crime. The sixth book in the Irene Huss series, The Fire Dance, will be published in January 2014. It involves Huss in the investigation of the arson murder of a young dancer who, it turns out, had been involved in an earlier homicide case, when Huss was just starting out. The description ends with the intriguing question: “can a child be responsible for the cold-blooded murder of an adult?”

The other forthcoming book, due out in November, is the third book in the Nina Borg series from Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, Death of a Nightingale. In this novel, Nina Borg (the prickly Red Cross nurse with a social conscience and a death of a nightingaletalent for torpedoing her domestic life) wonders if a Ukrainian immigrant who has escaped the police who want to interrogate her in connection with her abusive Danish fiance’s murder could possibly be a killer – a question that grows urgent when the woman’s young daughter is abducted. The answer to that puzzle has its roots in the terrible famine in 1930s Ukraine. I remember the authors speaking about this book and the research it involved when they were in Minnesota last fall.

 

I’m looking forward to both books.