Okay…there’s the unreliable narrator. Annoying but usually enlightening. But what about a protagonist who is an unlikeable narrator? One that has you, more than once, considering tossing the book across the room? Well, meet Bess. She’s awful. Ghastly. A terrible woman in so many ways I can’t even list them all.
She’s married to Halland, who is murdered immediately as the book begins. It’s a shock, because the brief time he’s mentioned makes him seem like a decent guy. And yet, there’s the sense that we, the reader, may be grieving more than Bess. She’s a cold fish, and the first big question is, is she really just a brat or is this grief overwhelming her? She’s left her child for this man…but she worries about what her search engine may contain. She kisses her neighbor before Halland’s body is cold. She’s appalling, and yet:
"I loved reading and had always thought of it as a refuge. I even read the labels on bottles, if only to keep myself occupied on trains or in restaurants. I read in bed at night. If I lay awake for more than two minutes after switching off the light, I switched it on again to avoid lapsing into thought. To avoid thinking."
Wait. That’s exactly what I do. Can it be that I have more in common with Bess than I’d like to think? As the story unfolds, author Juul makes us ask this question over and over again. Subtly, of course. Because no one wants to admit who they are, deep inside, not even to the character in a novel. That’s what makes Bess so compelling. She’s unlikeable, but then again, so is virtually everyone in her little world. She seems to have no real connection with another human…did she even have one with Halland? While she has lovely flashbacks of him, how tainted are they by grief and how real are they? Was he as messed up as everyone else she deals with? There’s a hint that he was seriously ill…but little to tell us how long she’d been caring for him. Was she at all?
She gets many visitors, all who seem to point her to her own failures. Her ex-husband, her daughter, neighbors…all seem to show up and make her look bad. Who is the mirror and who is the reality? Why are all the reflections so skewed? Why does she say that she “experienced the world with provisos”? What holds her back? And, then again, lest it be forgotten, who killed Halland?
Pia Juul’s writing is never dull…she also throws in quotes from everyone from Eugene Ionesco to Charles Dickens to Hans Christian Anderson. The pithy little quotes fuel a mood for the chapter that they precede, and yet…are they steering the reader in the correct direction? It’s significant that she also has a quote from Agatha Christie, who would have winked at the way nearly every character mentioned could have been the killer. And is that Bess flirting with the detective again?
At one point, Bess craves the simplicity of a television crime, not real life.
"All I needed for happiness was a detective series….Simplicity was a virtue. First a murder, nothing too bestial. Then a police inspector. Insights into his or her personal problems, perhaps. Details about the victim. Puzzles and anomalies. Lines of investigations. Clues. Detours. Breakthrough. Case solved. Nothing like real life.
The puzzle attracted me—the solution left me cold. Nothing like real life."
There it is again…that perplexing bit of humanity (who hasn’t been soothed by a rerun of Law & Order or Inspector Frost??) that makes Bess almost likeable again.
Peirene Press has produced yet another startlingly sharp novel. It’s the first of theirs that I wanted to throw, that had me arguing out loud over a character's bad decisions and pouting at their lack of response, but one that immediately pulled me back in. Who killed Halland is only one question that will arise....
Special thanks to Meike for the Review Copy.