Sunday 2 August 2015

Book Review: Snowblind by Ragnar Jónasson

The first of Ragnar Jónasson's Dark Iceland series to be translated into English by Quentin Bates, Snowblind takes us from the relative warmth of a summer in Reykjavik to the all-encompassing solitude of winter in a small northern fishing town. Siglufjördur's best days as the centre of Icelandic herring fishing are behind it; a tight-knit community, where the locals all know each other and the approaching cold sees the sun disappearing behind the mountains for two months, just may not be the most accommodating to strangers.

And so it proves for Ari Thór Arason, who moves from the Icelandic capital to take up his first posting as a police officer. Like all the best crime fiction protagonists, Ari Thór comes with his own baggage: the unresolved loss of his parents; abandoned courses in philosophy and theology and Kristín, his medical student girlfriend whom he doesn't think to consult before accepting his new job.

'Nothing ever happens around here', police sergeant Tómas tells him, but the peppering of the main narrative with a series of short, brutal vignettes indicates otherwise, as one woman faces a violent intruder in her own home and another is attacked and left to bleed to death in the snow. Then the town's most famous but cantankerous citizen, an elderly writer, dies in mysterious circumstances at a drama society rehearsal and, when Tómas seems unnaturally concerned to label his death an accident without even completing a full investigation, Ari Thóis in danger of falling foul of his new boss. Meanwhile, his feelings for one of the drama society's members, Ugla, are developing in a somewhat inappropriate direction given his relationship status, and he awakens from a nightmare to hear an intruder in his house:
His heart pumped a deafening beat. His fear confused him; he knew he had to think fast, had to stop thinking about the snow that had been stifling him a moment before. But he was unable to move. 
He shook his head, and crept as silently as he could into the passage to the stairs, still aware of movement down below, faint sounds that indicated that whoever was there was not keen to attract attention.
Now more alert, Ari Thór swore silently. 
Why the hell hadn't he locked the door? 
Although this is a well-paced and structured thriller in its own right, easily combining multiple viewpoints, in this first book of the series there's also a sense that Jónasson is laying the groundwork for his central character and that there will be plenty more to explore in subsequent novels. Ari Thór is a compelling lead: a young man yet to come to terms with the tragedies in his past, feeling his way in important relationships, not always doing the right thing but still trying to make a difference when it counts. And Siglufjördur is a wonderfully evocative setting; encircled by mountains and cut-off in the winter when the roads are impassable, as the complex web of secrets becomes ever more enmeshed, its small-town, suffocating darkness heightens Ari Thór's increasing paranoia at being an outsider in his own land.

Ragnar Jónasson was born in Reykjavik, where he still lives and works as a lawyer. As well as writing his own novels, he has previously translated Agatha Christie books into Icelandic and is co-founder of the crime-writing festival Iceland Noir. There are already five novels in the Dark Iceland series and Jónasson is currently working on the sixth; the second of the series, Nightblind, will be published in translation in the UK in 2016.

Snowblind is published in the UK by Orenda Books; many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy. Photos courtesy of Orenda and Ragnar Jónasson.

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