Source: Review copy
Publication: 17 March 2022 from Grove Press/ Atlantic Monthly Press
My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy for review
Liv has a lot of secrets. Late one night, in the aftermath of a party in the apartment she shares with two friends in Ålesund, she sees a python on a TV nature show and becomes obsessed with the idea of buying a snake as a pet. Soon Nero, a baby Burmese python, becomes the apartment’s fourth roommate. As Liv bonds with Nero, she is struck by a desire that surprises her with its intensity. Finally she is safe.
Thirteen years later, in the nearby town of Kristiansund, Mariam Lind goes on a shopping trip with her eleven-year-old daughter, Iben. Following an argument Mariam storms off, expecting her young daughter to make her own way home . . . but she never does. Detective Roe Olsvik, new to the Kristiansund police department, is assigned to the case of Iben’s disappearance. As he interrogates Mariam, he instantly suspects her – but there is much more to this case and these characters than their outer appearances would suggest.
A biting and constantly shifting tale of family secrets, rebirth and the legacy of trauma, Reptile Memoirs is a brilliant exploration of the cold-bloodedness of humanity.
Reptile Memoirs is a book that slithers and hisses its way into your consciousness. The story is of two missing children, 13 years apart and what happened to them. Told in multiple narrative voices this is a book that requires concentration but repays it in spades. It wraps its sinuous, scaly body around your mind, hypnotising you with rhythmic movements even as you surrender to its gaze.
Reptile Memoirs has a dual timeline and the narrative switches rapidly back and forth between 2005 and 2017. Set in Norway, in two towns, Ålesund and Kristiansund, it is the story of Liv who has grown up a damaged young woman, emotionally scarred by her mother and abused by her sleazebag brother, Patrick.
As soon as she is able, Liv gets out of the family home and finds a room in a shared basement apartment whose other occupants, Egil and Ingvar, are party boys. There she indulges her dream of owning a snake and buys Nero, a baby Burmese python, whom she keeps in her room. It is on Nero that Liv showers all the love and affection that she has been denied in her short life. He becomes her surrogate child and she resists the efforts of her flatmates to parade the snake at parties and even imagines she can understand its insistent hissing. It’s not altogether a healthy relationship, but Liv has never had anyone to love and Nero is the object of all her affection to the extent that she anthropomorphises him.
Liv finds herself unable to form healthy relationships with anyone her own age, though it is only when she meets an artist, Anita that she finds some happiness.
Detective Roe Olsvik is turning 60. He carries his own damage; he lost his daughter in 2005 and he and his wife never recovered from that tragedy. Now he is with the Kristiansund Police Department, keeping himself to himself and always looking for answers to what happened to his ‘Kiddo’.
When he hears that Iben, the daughter of notable business woman Mariam Lind and local poliyician, Tor, has gone missing, he immediately suspects the parents – not least because Mariam is behaving very oddly indeed. Olsvik’s colleagues Ronja, Birte, and August, can’t quite understand why he is so fixated on that angle and they have their own suspicions about Roe’s behaviour.
Reptile Memoirs is a book that shifts perspectives and timelines constantly which means you do have to focus quite intently, which is sometimes irritating in the midst of a serpentine plot dynamic where the pacing ebbs and flows. It is ambitious and unsettling – really quite unsettling in the case of Liv’s relationship with Nero, which is not for the faint-hearted.
But the plot is ingenious and very well done and as a result the surprises are genuinely thrilling and not a little jaw dropping. The psychological elements of this thriller are fascinating and brilliantly done, down to the book’s most unusual voice.
Verdict: Dark and sinuous, Reptile Memoirs is a study in damaged personalities and relationships. It is full of dark secrets and the inheritance that comes with family traumas. Certainly distinctive, this is one book that will linger in the memory and not for anyone with Ophidiophobia. But for those who like their crime beautifully intense with a strong, intense psychological bent, this is a sure fire winner.
Silje Ulstein has a master’s degree in Literature from the University of Oslo and studied creative writing at the Bergen Writing Academy. Her debut novel Reptile Memoirs was a bestseller in Norway. She lives in Oslo.
Photo c. Oda Berby