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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99
Translated from Icelandic by Quentin Bates

There’s nothing like reading a book about a cold, cold place while your own locale is still plunged in the tail-end of winter. In a glass is half-full kind of way, a reader could say, “At least I’m not living in a white-out blizzard.”

Icelandic author Ragnar Jónasson’s main character is a newly minted police officer, Ari Thór. (As an aside, last names, which are usually patronymics, often are not used in everyday life.) During 2008, when this book is set, the Icelandic banks were failing, a recession was hitting the land hard, and jobs were few and far between. Ari Thór must leave the security of the life he has built with his girlfriend in Rekyavik to travel to the far, cold, isolated north of Siglufjördur in order to work as a policeman. There, like in the bar Cheers, everyone knows your name. And your business. Before he knows it, Ari Thór has acquired a nickname, The Priest, in honor of his curtailed education in theology. (How did everyone know that?)

Nothing ever happens, he is told by his boss, Tómas. Fender-benders, accidental deaths, drunk-and-disorderlys. Nothing much. Until someone is sort-of-kind-of murdered.

Hrólfur Kristjánsson is arguably Iceland’s most famous author, but, like Harper Lee, he has only written one book. But it’s a darned good one. He is also famous in Siglufjördur for being grumpy and imperious. He has managed to make friends over the years, however, and his latest is Ugla, a young woman who rented the basement of his house for a time. She is a music teacher — with only one pupil, Ari Thór.

Hrólfur is producing a play for the local dramatic society. Ugla takes part, as do old acquaintances of Hrólfur, director Úlfur and playwright Pálmi. There are dramatic tensions and loud arguments over how the play should be done. There are personal relationships among the cast and crew that also affect the drama. When Hrólfur’s body is found at the bottom of the theater’s stairs, it looks like an accident. After all, Hrólfur was known to tipple quite a bit and he was getting on in years. Were it not for some secret sleuthing by Ari Thór, an accidental death would have been an easy conclusion.

Even with Ari Thór’s involvement — and rookie mistakes — Hrólfur’s death still may be an accident, but, too late, emotions and secrets already have been stirred.

And, oh yes, in this heavily unsuspicious and heretofore placid piece of Iceland, there is another suspicious death. What has Ari Thór stirred up?

The most impressively detailed part of “Snowblind” is the winter. Deep, claustrophobic snow. Dark, unrelenting early nightfalls. Isolation. Not surprisingly, Ari Thór has a visceral reaction to his new posting. He experiences sleep disturbances, claustrophobia, nightmares, and loneliness. He doesn’t know where his relationship stands with Kristin, his girlfriend in Reykjavik. He feels an unwanted attraction towards Ugla. His boss is mostly genial, except when he’s not. He has been warned off creating a case where none exists. These combine to create a very interesting (in a good way) work.

“Snowblind” has the advantage of being set in a fascinating part (Siglufjördur) of a fascinating part of the world (Iceland). Jónasson reveals the culture not just of a part of Iceland but also the universality of the small-town experience. Although “Snowblind” is not the first novel by Jónasson, it is the first translated into English. A prior untranslated novel, “Fölsk nóta,” deals with Ari Thór’s search for his missing father. There are several other untranslated novels after “Snowblind” as well. 

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