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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Death of a Nightingale by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

Soho Crime, 368 pages, $26.95

Natasha and her young daughter Katerina are immigrants to Denmark from the Ukraine. Natasha is running from something. After someone breaks into the Coal-House Camp for immigrants, where Natasha and Katerina were staying, the situation suddenly involves Nina Borg, a nurse who works there and the OCD heroine of two other books by Danish writers Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis.

In Death of a Nightingale, Kaaberbøl and Friis have created a compelling, intricate, and very human drama. It’s wonderfully translated by Elisabeth Dyssegaard, although both Kaaberbøl and Friis are fluent in English. I can’t help but think that that served the story well.

Nina Borg’s back story is compelling but wisely only touches of it enter Death of a Nightingale. This story belongs to Natasha and Katerina. Interspersed with the present-day story is a tale set in 1934-35 Ukraine. Two young girls, Oxana and Olga, and their mother have been deserted by the man of the house. The Communist Party holds sway there, although many people in the village are not sympathizers. Oxana is primed by the Party teacher to be the shining example of the young Communist worker. Despite Oxana’s prominence, the family suffers from extreme poverty and deprivation. Intriguingly, the reader doesn’t find out what the two stories have to do with each other until the very end.

Natasha’s husband, a journalist, was murdered in the Ukraine a while ago. Her Danish boyfriend was recently murdered. Natasha is being hunted by two different countries, but is she guilty?

Søren Kirkegard, a detective with the Danish Security and Intelligence Service, is assigned to work with Symon Babko of the Ukrainian criminal police. He accompanied a high-level secret police officer, Jurij Savchuk, who is intent on finding Natasha. Savchuk seems to have his own agenda, which adds to the mystery surrounding Natasha.

Nina Borg’s personal life is crap. Her compulsions, including the one that makes her want to save everyone but herself, trip her up and have robbed her of what she holds dear. Although Katerina is not her child, she feels compelled to protect her. And that’s part of the problem: “Rina” is NOT her daughter.

What are people willing to do under stress? How will they live their lives afterward? The characters in the story must ask what shackles them and what they are willing to do to break free.

It’s hard for an author to create one worthy story; Kaaberbøl and Friis have concocted two.

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