Source: Review copy
Publication: 1st October 2020 from Orenda Books
My thanks to the publisher for an advance review copy
Burned out and traumatised by her horrifying experiences around the world, aid worker Úrsula has returned to Iceland. Unable to settle, she accepts a high-profile government role in which she hopes to make a difference again.
But on her first day in the post, Úrsula promises to help a mother seeking justice for her daughter, who had been raped by a policeman, and life in high office soon becomes much more harrowing than Úrsula could ever have imagined. A homeless man is stalking her – but is he hounding her, or warning her of some danger? And why has the death of her father in police custody so many years earlier reared its head again?
As Úrsula is drawn into dirty politics, facing increasingly deadly threats, the lives of her stalker, her bodyguard and even a witch-like cleaning lady intertwine. Small betrayals become large ones, and the stakes are raised ever higher…
There are many, many things to admire about Iceland, which from the outside, looks like it has got women in public life completely sussed. Not if Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s novel is anything to go by! In fact there will be a strong chord of recognition in many women when our protagonist, Úrsula takes her first steps into public political life and is immediately stymied by a bureaucracy that knows exactly how to frustrate what Ursula wants and the forces of darkness don’t want her to have.
Ursula has an excellent track record of standing up for the poor and the forgotten as an international aid worker. But she burned out in that role and has come back home to Iceland to reconnect with her husband and family and to recover from the brutalising impact of everything she has experienced.
She has accepted a temporary role as Minister for the Interior hoping that she can use her skills for good but in a much less stressful environment. Ah, if only! In her naivety, Ursula is unprepared for the harsh realities of political life. The cut-throat world of politics is laid bare in a fast paced novel that doesn’t hesitate to show the craven nature of political wheeling and dealing where power is everything and women in particular are expendable.
This is a different kind of war zone; one where the velvet gloves are worn, but the determination to thwart Úrsula’s desire for progress is just as real as if a soldier were holding her up at gunpoint. In promising a distraught mother justice for her daughter, she finds the patriarchy putting obstacles in her way at every turn.
Not only that but her new profile is seemingly putting her at risk from a shady stalker and she’ll soon realise that even on the safe streets of Reykjavik, she needs constant security, provided in the form of Gunnar, her dedicated driver and personal security. All of this takes its toll on Úrsula and she finds herself taking risks that she would not normally contemplate.
Though she struggles to connect with her colleagues and she still can’t quite find the right relationship with her husband, Úrsula nonetheless is alive to those with much less privilege than herself and thus she notices and shares some quiet smoke breaks moments with Stella, a cleaner in the Parliament offices.
Stella has her own problems and how these two women intersect has an important role to play in Sigurðardóttir’s nicely layered plot.
Aptly named, Betrayal is everywhere in this novel. Ursula herself is both betrayed and betrayer. Those in power are betraying the very people who elected them to protect them. A rape victim is betrayed by the justice system that should be pursuing her rapist. Through all of this, Ursula has to find a path that enables her to be true to herself and yet lets her do a decent job.
I loved Lilja’s Sigurðardóttir’s portrayal of these characters and the wholly authentic way in which the worlds of politics and journalism are mixed to produce a heady story with lots of fake leads, lies and corruption. It is a thrilling and tense read that kept me wholly engaged and wondering how it might be resolved.
Verdict: With multiple threads and a number of potential suspects, this fast paced and enthralling political thriller is right up my street. Hat tip, too, to Quentin Bates for his impeccable translation skills.
Icelandic crime-writer Lilja Sigurðardóttir was born in the town of Akranes in 1972 and raised in Mexico, Sweden, Spain and Iceland. An award-winning playwright, Lilja has written four crime novels, including Snare, Trap and Cage, making up the Reykjavik Noir trilogy, which have hit bestseller lists worldwide. The film rights have been bought by Palomar Pictures in California. She lives in Reykjavík with her partner.