Written by Agnes Ravatn, translated by Rosie Hedger — Chalk up another win for the growing catalogue of new publisher Orenda Books. Here the company delivers a beguiling gem of crime fiction, translated from Norwegian, by talented new author Agnes Ravatn. You’ll be enraptured halfway through without encountering a single murder, detective or drop of blood. The Bird Tribunal is a triumph and Agnes Ravatn a major new voice.
Allis Hagtorn is not quite sure what to expect when she shows up to work at a house on the edge of the isolated Norwegian fjords. She’s answering an ad for a live-in caregiver for the taciturn man who lives there. Sigurd Bagge is a man of few words so she’s left to wonder what is wrong with her obviously well-built new employer. Why does he needs care and just where is his wife? Her main motive in taking the job was to escape her old life, which we hear more about as the story progresses. Although she’s acutely self-conscious, she strives to impress him with her gardening and cooking prowess while furtively glancing at his handsome features. What sounds like a set-up for a light-hearted rom-com, however, is anything but.
The disarming opening belies a deep psychological thriller characterised early on by a mounting sense of dread. Allis is cut off from the outside world, willingly on one hand because she’s running from her past and a sense of failure. But on the other, she seeks information about Bagge and his wife, but her sole source is cryptic and sneering remarks made by the creepy old grocer in the remote country store she bikes to.
Seeking solace in nature after one of Bagge’s many moods swings, Allis encounters a disturbing scene in the forest – a burnt clearing and charred nails like some grim fairy circle. The discovery marks the beginning of a series of revelations that deepens the sense of unease.
The first-person narrative provides tension as we are not sure if we can trust Allis’ limited perspective. Her enduring crush on Bagge, about whom she knows next to nothing, coupled with torment about her own self-worth lends a claustrophobic feel to the minimalist setting. The remote rural house has a Gothic ambiance that recalls the romance of Jane Eyre and the seething mystery of Rebecca. Latent mystery abounds in the house and its environs. Right from the start you are tantalised by a certain locked room. And then there’s the hidden cookbook belonging to the real elephant in the room, the missing wife. And outside, malevolent gulls and dead tits portend that Allis’ fledgling romance may not be so healthy as she wished.
Although Bagge is a nagging mystery, Allis rolls up her sleeves, determined to create order in the house, garden and her own life. She tries to tame her brooding Rochester, who only emerges from his chambers for meals. In the forced intimacy of their isolation a clumsy relationship starts to blossom, but only after Alli shares with Bagge a sad and lovely story derived from Norse mythology, the death of Balder. The act of storytelling breaks the ice between them, but when it’s his turn to tell his story, it is a deeply disturbing and hallucinatory vision, the titular bird tribunal.
The real breakthrough in their relationship comes when she cooks a meal from his wife’s cookbook, luring him out of his lair to begin a relationship and the validation she so craves. Rich with imagery and symbolism, Ravatn’s prose leaves out punctuation in character dialogues. This device works very well for our nervous narrator, who because she lacks self-confidence, neurotically rehearses speech before delivering it, and we realise it’s an actual utterance only after Bagge responds.
As Bagge alternately accepts, rejects, and scares the hell out of her, he also pleads for forgiveness and begins to reveals all of his secrets: the story of his wife Nor, a lunar eclipse, and finally, the secret of what lies hidden in the boathouse. With each revelation, Ravatn harnesses the darker aspect of nature, which serves her vivid prose as a narrative agent of mystery, violence and the supernatural. In the tradition of Nordic noir, nature itself is a main character in The Bird Tribunal, where ordinary objects are ominous ciphers, and even the dazzling beauty of the fjords oozes with darkness and latent murder.
Even if you think you’ve solved the core mystery, Allis’ fear and fascination will keep you turning the pages until the dramatic, harrowing end. Ravatn’s masterful prose and Rosie Hedger’s careful and clear translation makes for absolutely captivating reading. The Bird Tribunal is suffused with dark imagery from the ancient Eddas, creating a foreboding atmosphere that gets under the skin and stays there. Like a lunar eclipse, each revelation is another form of darkness.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars