"As she was approaching Skálar, fog rolled in without warning, blotting out the landscape and merging sea with sky. It felt like driving into an Impressionist painting, in which her destination kept receding as fast as she approached it; like entering a void in which time had ceased to have any meaning".
Ragnar Jonasson has established himself as one of the most important contemporary Icelandic crime writers and global readership has been introduced to his work through the majestic, award winning "Dark Iceland" series and the, more recent, "Hidden Iceland" saga featuring 64-year-old Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir of the Reykjavik Police Department. The Girl Who Died is Jonasson's latest standalone novel taking place in one of the remotest locations in Iceland, the tiny hamlet of Skálar right at the end of Langanes Peninsula with a population of of only ten people. The story is set, chronologically, in 1985, even though, as Jonasson writes in a brief author's note in the beginning of the book, in reality Skálar has been abandoned since the mid-1950s. The author did a research on the settlement and the historical facts presented reflect the truth about the village's past such as the presence of American troops during the Second World War in a radar station built there.
Skálar is a perfect setting for a crime story to unfold as it is cold, gloomy, and snowy, while the limited population of the village forces its inhabitants to stick together through thick and thin in order to be able to survive. In many ways, the setting of the book is reminiscent of Siglufjörður, the quiet village in Northern Iceland where the stories featuring Ari Thór Arason take place. Both are isolated, closed-knit communities far away from the capital of Reykjavik where people like to keep their own to their own and are suspicious of any newcomers, or external prying eyes threatening to disrupt the normality of their everyday lives.
The story begins when Una, a teacher living in Reykjavik and struggling to make ends meet, sees a newspaper advertisement under the title: "Teacher wanted at the edge of the world". Una is initially reluctant to apply as Skálar is 700 km outside Reykjavik and she is a person who is used to the bustling commotion of the city, so she isn't sure if she is ready to take such a big leap. Nevertheless, the lack of any romantic entaglement and the financial difficulties she is facing convince her to take the decision and move to the back of beyond. When Una arrives in the village, she meets her landlady, Salka, who welcomes her and gives her some basic information about living in Skálar and the other members of the miniscule local society. Salka has a daughter, Edda, who, along with another girl, Kolbrun, will be the only two pupils in Una's class. Edda and Kolbrun are different characters as the former is sociable and outgoing, while the latter is introverted and shy.
Una tries hard to adjust to her new life and when she meets a local young man, Thor, she even believes that she has a chance to rekindle her long gone love life. But, as she settles in Salka's house, Una begins to have horrible nightmares where a little girl dressed in white and singing a haunting lullaby haunt her. The protagonist doesn't believe in the existence of ghosts, nevertheless, she is scared out of her wits and begins to make intrusive questions to the village's residents who seem unwilling to help her. After a horrible tragedy happens involving Edda, Una will suspect that something truly sinister is going on in Skálar and she won't rest until she finds out the whole truth about what is happening now and what happened in the past.
Jonasson interjects some chapters where we read about a case of double murder that took place in the past and for which an innocent woman was arrested. The reader has no idea about how the two parallel stories are connected until the end of the novel where everything is explained and the bond between them is revealed. The double timeline narrative is handed expertly by the experienced Icelandic author who knows how to build the tension gradually and handily, while the descriptive parts of the novels are so well-written that captivate and arouse the reader's imagination. Of course, it should be noted that Victoria Cribb does a marvellous job in translating the book into English, highlighting the merits of the author's simple, straightforward prose which conveys in the best possible of ways the eeriness of the story. In terms of plot, The Girl Who Died is not a complex crime novel that is based on a labyrinthine story structure, but rather relies on the power of an ominous natural setting, the magic of the Icelandic folk tales, and the accurate psychological profiling of the main characters.
If you haven't still read a Ragnar Jonasson's novel, this could be the best introduction to the author's magnificent body of work and it is also recommended to the many fans of Icelandic crime fiction. Jonasson remains on the forefront of the country's most significant crime writers and he has won the readers' hearts with his splendid mystery/thrillers during the last decade. Every time I finish one of his books, I feel thirsty for more and I'm always on the lookout for his latest writing attempts. Let's hope that we will have the chance to read more similar, high-quality novels in the near future.