Source: Review copy
Publication: Available now in e-book and in paperback on 21 March 2019 from Orenda Books
In 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In a great haste, she escapes to Sweden, saving herself. Her family in Oslo, however, is deported to Auschwitz. In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, who helped Ester get to Sweden. Their burgeoning relationship ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire.
And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…
Written with Dahl’s trademark characterization and elegant plotting, The Courier sees the hugely respected godfather of Nordic Noir at his best, as he takes on one of the most horrific periods of modern history, in an exceptional, shocking thriller.
Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive – Marmion, Sir Walter Scott
Set in Oslo and Stockholm across three time strands — 1942, 1967 and 2015 — Kjell Ola Dahl’s novel is a literary thriller set during the Second World War and the German occupation of Norway. In the tradition of the great spy thrillers, it is, as you would expect, a terrific read and an engrossing, captivating story.
It is also a deeply political and personal study of betrayal. Ester Lemkov, a young woman, is working for the Resistance, delivering illegal newspapers, when she is almost caught and escapes by the skin of her teeth. But although she is not caught, she arrives home just in time to see her father’s shop being closed down and her father taken away by the occupiers, leaving the words ‘Closed – Jewish’ on the shop door.
Esther’s home has fared no better and she runs for succour to her friend Åse, who has a baby daughter, Turid with her partner Gerhard, for a place to stay and hide before escaping into Sweden, where she continued to work with the resistance. Gerhard was also working with the Resistance and had earned a reputation as a formidable figure there, having fought with the International Brigade in Spain.
A few days after she leaves for Stockholm, Åse is murdered in her home and Gerhard is suspected of killing her. Turid is taken in by Ase’s friends, Erik and Grete and eventually adopted when Gerhard dies in a fire.
Twenty five years pass and suddenly Gerhard walks back into Ester’s life. His death was staged and he fled to America, where he has been living ever since. Now he wants to see his daughter, Turid.
There is so much in this novel to think about. On one level, it is an important and timely reminder of things we should never, ever, forget. A reminder of what men will do to each other in the name of race or religion; a reminder that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. In that context, it is good to be reminded of where the name Quisling came from and what history the Norwegian Jews who were sent to Auschwitz, share with their German and Polish counterparts.
But The Courier is also a novel about the personal as Kjell Ola Dahl slowly reveals not only the suffering that his characters endured during this period and the after-effects that this had on them, but also exposes their true characters, their flaws and in some cases their unpleasant nature.
The personal is political and that’s never been more clearly shown than in this novel. The detail that Kjell Ola Dhal infuses into his characters is rich and rewarding. Whilst we scrutinise their actions and question their motives, we learn about their lives and come to understand just what it is that has made them who they are.
That, in itself, is affecting for the reader, because these characters become real for us, and for a moment we are there, imaging what it must be like to lose your whole family to the gas chamber, or to be tortured for so long that you never want to be sober again.
The Courier, though is also a fascinating and immersive mystery, as we follow Esther from the moment she first understands that she can put something right that is not right until the moment when she is finally able to restore a semblance of justice to where it belongs – and that does feel very right.
The Courier is a deeply affecting, shocking and utterly immersive thriller.
Verdict: A tense, traumatic and thrilling spy novel.
One of the fathers of the Nordic Noir genre, Kjell Ola Dahl was born in 1958 in Gjøvik. He made his debut in 1993, and has since published eleven novels, the most prominent of which is a series of police procedurals cum psychological thrillers featuring investigators Gunnarstranda and Frølich. In 2000 he won the Riverton Prize for The Last Fix and he won both the prestigious Brage and Riverton Prizes for The Courier in 2015. His work has been published in 14 countries, and he lives in Oslo.