The Bird Tribunal: Norwegian Chill

the-bird-tribunal-vis-1Agnes Ravatn: The Bird Tribunal (transl. Rosie Hedger)

A book so ice-cold and chilly, that you will have to stop reading and put on an extra jumper! A sense of growing menace and discomfort on every page, yet it achieves all that without any hardcore violence or shocking language. It is so civilised, so discreet, barely a few ripples on a very calm fjord, belying the treacherous waters below.

It is also an extremely claustrophobic read. Yes, most of the action takes place outdoors, in a rather beautiful natural setting, but this is nature at its most sinister. The violet mountains of the fjord seem to close in on the remote, run-down property where Allis works as a housekeeper/gardener/cook for the mysterious Sigurd Bagge. The garden is ‘a grey winter tragedy of dead shrubbery, sodden straw and tangled rose thickets.’ There is an infestation of mice, but the traps she sets catch nothing but birds. Robins crash against the window panes, there are locked doors of Bluebeard memory and remnants of burnt objects in the woods. Even the full moon is not romantic, but tainted by a lunar eclipse. Yet Allis chooses to ignore the threats, most of the time, focusing instead on the gentle lapping of the water, the balmy summer evenings, sharing an occasional bottle of wine with her employer.

Another fjord picture from, because I can never resist one...
Another fjord picture from, because I can never resist one…

The claustrophobia is heightened by the fact that there are only two characters circling each other, swooping in and out, like rapacious birds. Their actions are strange and unpredictable. Bit by bit, we eke out pieces of Allis’ story, how she is trying to escape from the notoriety which surrounded an affair she was embroiled in. Her desire to go underground and hide, her instant attraction to the Heathcliff-like moodiness of her employer, her curiosity about his missing wife and her utter revulsion at the nasty gossip hinted at by the local shopkeeper all show her to be a less than reliable narrator. We also find out more about Sigurd, but only from their conversations; we are never in his head. The dream-like atmosphere is further emphasised through their storytelling. Allis tells Sigurd about Norse myths, especially the story of Balder, god of patience and forgiving, and how mischief-maker Loki seeks to destroy him. Meanwhile, Sigurd talks about a bird tribunal, something that seems half-imagined, half-real.

The way this book builds up tension, the currents of feeling rippling below the surface, reminded me of two other Scandinavian novels: Therese Bohman’s Drowned and Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver. This is calm, collected prose, where you need to allow every word to sink in, so precise and exquisite in its English incarnation (and probably in its Norwegian original). Or perhaps it’s poetry…

Another winner from Orenda Books, proving they have books for all tastes and all seasons.


14 thoughts on “The Bird Tribunal: Norwegian Chill”

  1. Nordic chills can be very chilly indeed. A couple of years ago I had to stop reading one of these almost at the end as I was starting to feel rattled at home at night. I never found out how it finished 🙂

  2. Oh, this does sound creepily good, Marina Sofia. I’ve been hearing very positive things about this one, and it’s good to know you liked it very much, too. It just goes to show you that even books that subtly get at people’s dark sides can be eerie!

    1. No, it’s well calibrated… although bear in mind that it has no punctuation for dialogue, which makes it hard to distinguish at times between what is thought and what is said (which I suppose is the whole point).

  3. Hmm. I’m looking for a new book, and I think I’ll give this a go. I’m nearly finished with Ron Rash’s story collection Something Rich and Strange, which is by turns creepy and darkly humorous. Hope you’re well.

  4. Good to hear Karen has made, yet again, an amazing choice. You all love this book and I hope to read it soon (as soon as I catch up on everything!).

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