Atmospheric, emotion driven and suspense filled read
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 28 August 2021
If you have come to this book expecting a fast paced, action driven story with all of the quirks that were to be found in Lilja Sigurðardóttir's Reykjavik Noir series, you may be disappointed. This is a slower paced, more contemplative novel, one in which a sense of melancholy is infused from the very beginning, but one that is no less compelling or addictive as a result. There is a kind of coldness to the opening chapter, a sense of foreboding and an understanding of what will come to pass in the ensuing pages, even if we do not know the full who are why yet. The who will be clear very quickly, discovering the how and why are really the sole purpose of Áróra's return to Iceland, even if she is not as aware as we, the readers, are of this fact.
This is, in essence, the story of a missing person. Receiving a call from her mother, Áróra returns to the country of her birth, a country she can no longer identify with as home, in a bid to find her sister, Ísafold, who has seemingly vanished without a trace. At the very least she has failed to keep in contact with their mother, something which is very out of character for her. We follow Áróra as she tries to track her sister's movements, navigating her world, tracking her extended family and speaking to her neighbours in a bid to find out what has happened since their mother lost contact. Her investigations reveal some worrying truths about Ísafold's relationship, but do they bring her any closer to discovering the truth. Meanwhile, someone is working hard to keep a dark secret, one which drew me deeper into the story. And there are more reasons why Ísafold's neighbours are being so evasive, reasons which draw directly upon a very relatable and all too common issue of the modern world.
What I love about Lilja Sigurðardóttir's writing is that she creates characters that I may not always like, I may not always approve of the actions, but in whom I become so invested that I am pulled deeper into the story. That is certainly the case in Cold As Hell and in Áróra we have a protagonist who is quite spiky, almost selfish in outlook at times, her reluctance in tracing her sister almost halting her investigations before they begin. But there is another side to Áróra as just as you think you have her figured out, that deeper emotional core, the one she tries to hide, is brought to the fore. Beyond it all, she is quite astute, and the kind of character that gets under your skin, leaving me admiring her strength and intelligence. She is an intriguing character, one who I could identify with in many ways, but one who felt real, three dimensional, and authentic. The people around her, the people on the periphery of her investigations all add to the story in their own ways, all unique personalities who range from the obsessional to the emotional and everything in between. There is a clear chemistry between Áróra and her 'not-quite' Uncle, Daníel, one that never quite peaks for a variety of reasons. It's something I'll be interested to see if the author explores further in future books.
Exploring the refugee situation, coercive control, fraud and the themes of family, love and, ultimately, revenge, this book brought forth a range of emotions and kept me immersed in its pages from start to finish. For fans of the author's other books you may recognise the odd character or two, and whilst only one the edges of this particular story I have a feeling they could well make a return. It brings a nice sense of familiarity to the book, a sense of the interconnected nature of both the characters in this story and the country as a whole. Iceland may be a small island, and the communities that Ísafold engaged with may well have been limited in size and number, but the author has an ability to bring them to life, to make you feel every twist and turn of the volcanic and city landscapes, all of which adds to the sense of desolation that flows throughout the story. It is very effective and for every moment of light within the story, you have an equal moment of darkness and brooding where the stark truth of this sad tale come to mind. A nod to translator Quentin Bates who has enabled that image of the landscape to flow perfectly in English, giving even the least geographically aware reader a real sense of setting.
Whilst there is a kind of sad inevitability about this story, there was, for me at least, a kind of excitement about what is yet to come. In just one book Áróra has proven her ability to upset the status quo, to challenge corruption, at least if there is something in it for her, and to make a real impression on those around her. This has been another beautifully crafted mystery, powered by authentic characters, well balanced emotional drive and intrigue, atmospheric setting and top notch storytelling. Roll on book two.
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