I can’t even remember why or how I came to read Jar City a few years ago. I know it was during the winter. I sometimes tend towards seasonal reading and, well, what better setting for a winter novel than a story set in Iceland. After watching the PBS series “Wallander” with Kenneth Branagh, I had the hankering for another foreign novel and my thoughts returned to Iceland.
Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason is the second major book to hit English-speaking bookstores. The protagonist of Indridason’s series is Detective Inspector Erlendur, a morose, divorced man with two estranged children and a small team of detectives who try their best to keep his spirits up. As someone who might never step foot on Icelandic soil, Indridason’s book are rich in local flavor. Not so much large descriptions of the landscape, the customs, or the food, mind you, but there’s a palpable sense of place in these stories. It’s what invigorates the reading of the tale even if the main character sometimes can’t figure out where to sleep.
The book itself isn’t gruesome, but the first sentence might give you the creeps:
He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it.Ick. The baby’s brother leads his mother to the place where he found the “funny rock” and discovers a buried skeleton. Erlendur’s team is called in and, upon a quick inspection, decides to defer to an archeological team. The archeologists begin their digging, which goes on agonizingly slow. The pace frustrates Erlendur, but allows the author to weave a separate, parallel story.
In this second story, an unnamed mother of a crippled daughter, marries a man. With him, she has two boys. What she didn’t know when she agreed to be his wife was that he is a wife beater. In unflinchingly harsh descriptions, Indridason shows the reader this family’s life, how the mother and children cringe at the husband’s seemingly random acts of violence and how her will is gradually ground to dust.
The mother is not the only one dealing with familial issues. Erlendur’s daughter, a habitual drug user in her twenties, is pregnant. He has had few good times since his divorce twenty years ago and to describe his relationship with her as troubled is putting it lightly. She calls Erlendur out of the blue asking for help. In the main subplot, Erlendur searches for a finds his daughter, Eva, lying in a coma on the street.
Not too far into the book do you, the reader, realize two things. One, the time period of the mother’s story is in the past. Two, the skeleton that Erlendur is investigating somehow is related to the mother’s family. You just don’t know who. Or why. Gradually, Erlendur and his team uncover some truths of the past--and he has to come to terms with his own failed family as he sits by his daughter’s bedside in the hospital--but they can’t quite get every detail in order. The mother’s story line moves forward, too, and it gets to a point where you start guessing about the identity of the skeleton. I know I did, and I am not afraid to admit that I was wrong about a detail or two. That’s the fun of reading a book like this.
The prose, translated by the late Bernard Scudder, moves along briskly, Indridason’s lean style as bleak as Erlendur’s outlook on life. The characterizations are rich, even if only an outline of a person is given. More than a few times I found the technical writer side of me wanting to edit the grammar. It isn’t bad or wrong, it just that I had to re-read a passage or two to make sure which noun referred to which pronoun. Nothing major.
Silence of the Grave won the 2005 British Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger award for best novel. The cover lists the story as a “thriller” and, frankly, I was expecting the usual type thriller, a la James Bond or Dan Brown. This isn’t that type of thriller. In fact, I think the book is mislabeled. There’s little thrilling about this story, except a certain passage towards the end. Guess we all have different definitions of the same word.
I enjoyed Silence of the Grave and I’ve already moved on to the third English-translated book, Voices. Jar City was made into a pretty decent movie. I’d like to see more of Indridason’s novels made into movies. They are perfect for the PBS Masterpiece Mystery show. If you like those types of programs, you’ll like this book.
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