Source: Review copy
Publication: 10 June 2021 from Michael Joseph
My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy for review
TEACHER WANTED ON THE EDGE OF THE WORLD . . .’
Una knows she is struggling to deal with her father’s sudden, tragic suicide. She spends her nights drinking alone in Reykjavik, stricken with thoughts that she might one day follow in his footsteps.
So when she sees an advert seeking a teacher for two girls in the tiny village of Skálar – population of ten – on the storm-battered north coast of the island, she sees it as a chance to escape.
But once she arrives, Una quickly realises nothing in city life has prepared her for this. The villagers are unfriendly. The weather is bleak. And, from the creaky attic bedroom of the old house where she’s living, she’s convinced she hears the ghostly sound of singing.
Una worries that she’s losing her mind.
And then, just before midwinter, a young girl from the village is found dead. Now there are only nine villagers left – and Una fears that one of them has blood on their hands . . .
No-one does remote Icelandic locations quite like Ragnar Jónasson. This time, set in the 1980’s, it is Una, a 30 year old Reykjavík teacher who, struggling since the suicide of her father, is attracted by the idea of getting away from it. When her friend shows her an advertisement for a teaching job in the remote village of Skálar, on the north east Icelandic peninsula, she ponders a lifestyle change.
Una, who’s been barely living, spending her meagre cash on drink and hiding herself away, thinks a complete change of scene can only do her good. Skálar has a population of only 10 people, so she will be away from it all, but forced to socialise, she thinks, so that will do her good.
But the reality is different from the somewhat more romantic vision that Una had envisioned. As her car struggles to cope with the journey, packing up as she arrives at the edge of the village, she finds herself without any means of leaving. It’s not a huge problem, as everyone walks everywhere in Skálar, but she has barely arrived before Jónasson is piling on the sense of claustrophobic isolation that we love so much in his novels. This time it carries with it a very real sense of tension and foreboding which is only exacerbated when Una finds that she is hardly welcomed by the villagers.
Una has two pupils. Edda, 7, is Salka’s daughter and Una is to live in Salka’s attic. The other girl, Kolbrún, is 9, but where Edda is friendly and cheerful, Kolbrún is reserved and taciturn.
Skálar is a fishing village with a few homes, a small co-op store with irregular hours, a farm and a church. It’s even smaller than Una anticipated, but what really gets to her is that no-one is really friendly. Even Skalar, with whom she is living, is reserved. Inga, Kolbrún’s mother, does not seem to want Una to teach her daughter and Kolbrún’s father, a fisherman named Kolbeinn, has hardly met her before he starts automatically hitting on her. Others in the village are even less accommodating to this newcomer and the reader gets the distinct feeling that there must be a reason why Una is not welcome here; that these people have a secret they are shielding.
A second perspective, very much in the background, gives hints of what may be going on but offers no clues as to how to reconcile that perspective with what Una is facing.
There’s one small spark of light in Thor, a man she meets who lives in the old farm house. But though he is not hostile to Una, neither does he actively seek out her friendship, which is odd given their age and single status.
Una settles into her teaching routine but at night, when she withdraws to her room to drink the wine she buys from the local store, her sleep is more and more distressed by nightmares. She starts to be disturbed by a piano’s sound in a room below and a child in a white dress, singing a lullaby.
Una believes this is the ghost of Thrá who died in mysterious circumstances in the house 60 years ago. When she tries to talk about what she hears and sees, she is dismissed and told that perhaps she should ease up on her wine consumption. Yet the villagers all know about Thrá who used to live in this very house where Una now sleeps. Because this is set in the 1980’s, the absence of mobile phones and the internet slows down all Una’s research opportunities and this too, adds to the suspense.
Jónasson beautifully creates this added layer of supernatural suspense on top of an already tense and chilling environment until we don’t know whether Una is losing her mind or what she sees is real. The beautifully layered mingling of chilling suspense with more than a hint of the supernatural is a fantastic concoction and Jónasson blends these two elements perfectly. When a visitor, rare at this time of year, shows up looking for Hjördís, who sometimes rents rooms, then subsequently disappears, Una can’t believe that no-one in the village thinks that disappearance is odd.
Then disaster strikes at Christmas and Una is now faced with another mystery that has to be solved before she can truly understand what lies beneath the surface of this cold and hostile community.
Though the story itself lacks a bit of punch, its carried off by the atmosphere created by Jónasson.
Verdict: Ragnar Jónasson really is a master of chilling, atmospheric story telling. The Girl Who Died is haunting and intense and the plotting is sublime. With nods to the gothic, this is both crime and a ghostly story where the setting reigns supreme.
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Ragnar Jónasson is an international number one bestselling author who has sold over two million books in thirty-two countries worldwide. He was born in Reykjavík, Iceland, where he also works as an investment banker and teaches copyright law at Reykjavík University. He has previously worked on radio and television, including as a TV news reporter for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, and, from the age of seventeen, has translated fourteen of Agatha Christie’s novels. His critically acclaimed international bestseller The Darkness is soon to be a major TV series.