Death awakens life.
Publisher: Peirene Press
First Published: 2009 in Danish; 2012 in English
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2012
Original language: Danish
Original title: Mordet på Halland (The Murder of Halland)
Translated by: Martin Aitken
Bess is woken by the sound of someone being shot – her husband. She had fallen asleep in another room when he’d want to go to bed and she’d wanted to keep working. Who murdered Halland? The neighbours think it was Bess, but it soon becomes obvious that that idea is wrong. Bess tells the reader of her life with Halland, and how they had grown apart. She loved him, and she is grieving, but is she grieving for him?
If there’s one thing reading Peirene Press’s translations for the last year or so has taught this reviewer, it’s that she needs to time her readings with when she is most mentally awake. The Murder Of Halland, like Tomorrow Pamplona before it, is an incredibly complex novella that runs to the rooftops screaming a need to be discussed before full understanding can be reached. You can imagine how difficult this book is to think about by oneself.
Central to the story is the seemingly misplaced sadness of Bess. The woman appears to be suffering from depression, and from what she says at first you’d be forgiven for thinking she is upset with the hazy nature of her relationship. But what develops is a situation where the reader understands, better than the character, how she, Bess, feels, and why she is feeling that way. You might wonder if there was, storyline wise, another purpose for Halland’s death. Juul’s plotting is magnificent for the way she brings it all together.
Apart from this, from all the complex domestic-social-psychological discussion, there is a crime story. Who killed Halland and why did they do it? This part of the book is relatively easy to unravel and the motivations usual enough. What is interesting about it is that is shows a parallel way that people deal with a situation, and this of course links back to Bess’s misplaced sadness. Yet amongst all the complexities there was surely real love behind Bess’s decision to be with Halland.
Every character in this book is there to help Bess find herself, even if at first they just seem to be there as a friend or in the background as scenery. The secondary plot shows itself as a potential affair, for example, and the reader must work out if there really was one, or if the character is being truthful in the story they provide. And what does the sub-plot do to alter Bess’s state of mind? – in every case read the included quotations carefully to fully explore every issue and consequence.
The Murder Of Halland is confusing, intricate, and appears to be a whole lot of mixed up storylines pulled together. And it can take thinking about it afterwards to realise it, indeed this review has reached its conclusion precisely because it was written.
This is so much more than a murder mystery, and for that it should satisfy the delights of many a reader. It may be a short book, but don’t let that fool you any more than the suggestion that Bess was the killer.
The Murder Of Halland was originally written in Danish, and was translated into English by Martin Aitken.
I received this book for review from Peirene Press.
June 19, 2012, 1:41 am
I’ve never read any of the novellas published by Peirene Press. Technically, they would be right up my street, but I never see them in the library or bookshops here and they are quite expensive to buy online. I like a decent quota of pages per $ when I buy books. :)
June 19, 2012, 4:03 am
Wow, this sounds very intense. I have heard of Peirene Press, but have had a similar experience to Violet’s. Though if the books are that amazing, they are probably worth the money :-)
June 19, 2012, 9:39 am
Violet: They are difficult to find in shops, I agree. I’ve only been able to purchase one in that way, and recently I’ve been thinking of recommending to the shop that they buy more to sell because they are exactly the sorts of books a lot of readers look for and sit nicely on the fence between high-brow and bog standard easy-to-read fiction – clever narratives that just about anyone who likes literary fiction would love. They do seem expensive on the face of it, but the quality of the story, writing, and translation, coupled with the small-print (large margins but just as much on the page as other books) make up for it.
Aarti: Yes, they are expensive compared to others, but from the books I’ve read and the ones I’ve not read but heard a lot about, there isn’t a bad egg amongst them. You can pay less for a longer book from a big publishing house and there’s a big chance you’ll end up with a book on your shelf that you feel shouldn’t have even been published. With Peirene you just don’t get that, they have a specific sort of book in mind, that much is obvious, and as such they are always good quality. And now I sound like a marketer, but it’s true.