Seeking to flee her previous life, TV presenter and academic Allis Hagtorn takes up a job as housekeeper and gardener for Sigurd Bagge, a recluse living in the remote Norwegian fjords. Bagge’s wife is away travelling, and despite – or perhaps because of – his morose and secretive nature, Allis finds herself drawn to him. Their relationship develops into an obsessive power struggle that leads to a dramatic, abrupt conclusion. This is a story of shame and guilt, of the fallout of emotional abuse and the often misguided ways in which we seek atonement for our acts.
This novel is an exhibition in pace: Ravatn pulls us in from the outset and constructs her story deftly, quietly and steadily ramping up the tension right up to the finale. There is an overriding sense of foreboding in the writing, intensified by the crackling dynamic between the protagonists. Their encounters are terse and prickly, and Allis’ candid narration lends these an added charge.
He made me feel so stupid and inferior, incapable of making my own decisions. His expression, contrived, always scrutinising, as if to demonstrate that I was his, that he could decide where I could and couldn’t go.
Bagge attempts to distance himself from Allis by asserting his status, while she in turn seeks to make herself indispensable to him in whatever way she can: I could be anyone for him, if only I had the faintest idea what he wanted. This servile aspect can be difficult to accept, and indeed I found it hard to warm to Allis. She is vain, delusional and irrational, strangely and simultaneously self-obsessed and self-effacing. As a character study, however, she is certainly compelling, and her moments of clarity are revealing,
“You can’t learn to banish that irrational stupidity that lurks within all of us”, she says, “can’t accept it as nothing more than the passing delusion it is.”
It is as though in this relationship Allis is both participant and observer; like us, she is able to see the toxic nature of the dynamic between her and Bagge, yet she is unable to extricate herself from it, so completely has she internalised the shame of her past. This makes for both suffocating and frustrating reading at times, but as a tactic it is successful, as her instability is fully motivated, her shame palpable. However deluded, she sees this new life as a means of breaking with her past, of starting afresh:
I could create a sense of self, mould a congruous identity in which none of the old parts of me could be found. I could make myself pure and free from guilt, a virtuous heart.
Bagge, in many ways more problematic, is harder to place. Brooding and evidently racked by guilt, he comes over as the more romantic figure in the novel. However, it is hard to tell how much of this is real and how much of this Allis projects onto him: her bitter disappointment at discovering that Bagge can’t tell the difference between homemade and shop-bought meat stock is as laughable as it is indicative of the very specific (and at least partially inaccurate) image she has of him. The novel, interestingly, uses no speech marks – a hint, perhaps, at the extent to which Allis has internalised her exchanges with Bagge. Ravatn weaves these ambiguities into the text well. They are astute observations that nevertheless allow for alternative, conflicting readings.
The isolated and tranquil setting – the subtle drama of the Norwegian fjords – serves as a perfect counterbalance to the charged atmosphere inside the house. In the early garden and forest scenes there is a real sense of relief in the prose, the writing littered with playful details, from a grey winter tragedy of dead shrubbery to scents that tickle the nose. These are translated with flair and add an almost pastoral lilt to the novel. However, this natural idyll is dramatically turned on its head, with birds in particular reflecting an increasingly sinister external environment as the novel approaches its climax. Norse mythology and dreams are also used economically but to good effect, adding extra layers to the intrigue.
Well-crafted as the novel is, Rosie Hedger should also be commended for her taut and finely honed translation. This is a text in which so much bubbles beneath the surface, so much is unexplained, and in this I feel the translation is perfectly pitched: it has a weight and resonance to it, without ever losing its pace. There is a good deal of ambiguity to the novel and inconsistency in its protagonists, but the translation feels measured, precise. The tonal changes of the novel are also negotiated well, down to the sly traces of irony that Norwegian readers particularly will be more familiar with from Ravatn’s earlier writing (this is the first of her novels to be translated into English).
Not only because of the birds, there is a Hitchcock feel to this novel: it’s short but packs a punch, delivers well-crafted entertainment driven by human fixations and flaws, with a rather warped and unsettling plot and conclusion. This is Ravatn’s first book in this genre, and as a psychological thriller it certainly does the job. In all, a tense and riveting read!
Reviewed by Alex Fleming
The Bird Tribunal
By Agnes Ravatn
Translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger
Published by Orenda Books
Alex Fleming translates contemporary literature and drama from Swedish and Russian, including works by Maxim Osipov, Ilya Chlaki, Alexei Slapovsky and Cilla Naumann. After living in Stockholm, Uppsala and Moscow, she is currently based in London.