What a funny little book.
I was unaware of Pia Juul until The Murder of Halland was kindly sent to me by Peirene Press, a fantastic independent publisher that “specializes in contemporary European novellas in English translation.” Having been aware of them for a while, I was thrilled to receive a book from their latest series, ‘Small Epic: Unravelling Secrets‘. I love the idea of this. Peirene create little series of books, each of three volumes. So far there is ‘Female Voice: Inner Realities‘, ‘Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy‘, and now the ‘Small Epic’ series. Nine books in total, each carefully chosen for not only their success in their native countries but also for their unique appeal and unconventionality.
Peirene was founded in 2008 by Meike Zeirvogel. She chooses only the best European fiction for her readers. Pia Juul is a successful author in her native Denmark, and The Murder of Halland, her most recent novel, won the most prestigious literary award in Denmark, Den Danske Banks Litteraturpris. The Peirene blurb begins with – “Denmark’s foremost literary author turns crime fiction on its head.” Intriguing, no? I’m not a massive reader of crime fiction, but won’t say no to a good thriller, and this premise was certainly interesting. How had she turned crime fiction on its head? Was there some strange plot device? A surreal element? Coming to the end of this short book, surreal is definitely a word I would use to describe it.
Our narrator is Bess, partner of the murdered Halland. They live together, but are not married, and seem to have a fairly ordinary life in a small town in Denmark. The night before the murder, they watch TV, Halland goes to bed, Bess works late and sleeps on the sofa. She awakes to find he has been shot in the square outside their house, and a local man is accusing her of the crime. Suffice to say, Bess is a little confused.
Some questions are answered, but poor Bess spends the rest of the novel asking and asking about the death of her partner, about her estranged family members, about herself. Once Halland dies, she seems completely lost; perhaps she was lost before, but his presence guided her a little and helped things make sense. Without him, she does not know what to do. Obviously devastated but completely disorientated by Halland’s death, Bess struggles to deal with the police officers who are investigating the murder, no matter how kind and helpful they are. She goes out one night, completely distraught, and becomes so drunk that a neighbour finds her outside the nightclub, lying in the grass. The neighbour, Stine, takes Bess back to her house. Bored by her small talk, Bess leaves and vomits on the doorstep. It is incidents such as this that demonstrate to the reader that thought Bess may be ‘fine’ she is not coping with Halland’s death at all well. It seems to have thrown her entire world off kilter.
Bess bonds with one of her neighbours, Brandt the dentist, in the time after Halland’s death. It is not clear why. At times her desperation creates a desire to kiss him, at other times she is happy to come across him on an early morning walk and look out at the fjord together. Brandt is interesting – he has a nameless lodger who keeps turning up for no apparent reason, and is looking after his sister’s dog, whom he does not particularly like. Bess is drawn to Brandt, despite being put off by the lodger and over-friendly dog (as a dog owner, I cannot work out why they don’t like the dog). She appears to find some kind of solace in his company, some refuge from her grief:
I could hear Brandt’s gentle breathing, sensed his presence without looking at him.
‘I love the fjord,’ I said, and held my breath.
‘Yes,’ he said, putting his hand on my neck. We had almost reached the churchyard gates. It was dark. His hand felt so good.
Amongst the chaos of her feelings, Bess feels calm with Brandt, though on the face of it he seems to offer little that is different from her other friends and neighbours. He does not say much, and so I suppose this is what appeals to her. There is obviously some kind of connection or closeness between them, though its exact form or state is never made explicit. Bess seems to live her life rather quietly, doing her best to get along and not liking a lot of fuss, noise and excitement. Juul’s writing reflects this. No matter what the scene, her writing style is very calm, and still and measured. She uses very simple descriptions, preferring to be precise and concise rather than waste words conjuring what the reader can already see in her sparse prose. A moment of narrative self-awareness (if that makes sense) that I loved is a perfect example of only the necessary being included in Juul’s writing – the opening of chapter 19:
I opened the door. Brandt’s lodger. I haven’t described him. I won’t bother now; it’s irrelevant.
The sparseness helps create a sense of disorientation, a sense that something is displaced and incomplete. It is irrelevant to describe the lodger partly because the reader has already gone this long without a description but also because Bess does not feel the need to describe his face, or his hair or clothes. What he looks like does not matter because after Halland dies, very little seems to matter to Bess. There are old family ties that she wishes to revisit but seems almost afraid of, and she hates it when her mother calls. She is a woman lost in every sense. Descriptions of people as well as places are sparse, but so are the descriptions of Bess’ feelings. She does not say ‘I was…’ and nothing is clear and obvious. She often snaps and shouts at people for no apparent reason, getting more worked up than necessary.
‘I have some aquavit as it happens!’ said Pernille, entering the room with a bottle and a glass in her hands.
‘Out!’ I shouted, ‘I don’t want any aquavit! Make me some coffee! If you’ve got decent coffee, that is!’
‘I beg your pardon,’ she huffed, and went away again.
Bess just doesn’t know what she’s doing. At Halland’s funeral she is grumpy and terse, ignoring everyone. She does not cry. At times she wonders who killed Halland and why, but the question does not seem to haunt or disturb her. She is more preoccupied with finding out if he was hiding anything from her, why his office is so uncharacteristically tidy, why Brandt goes missing.
The sparseness of the writing makes some moments vivid – like Bess looking out at the fjord with Brandt – but a lot of the time it creates a sense of disorientation and feels quite surreal. This means that the reader has a glimpse into Bess’ state of mind, but it also means that the reader does not always understand what is going on, what Bess is trying to do, where this story is going. No one seems to be a clear suspect, and even when one person seems like a possible culprit, nothing more is said of it.
I won’t spoil the ending, but there are a lot of unanswered questions – though, it seems, more so for the reader than for Bess. Though not everything is neatly concluded and wrapped up, Bess seems to come to some sense of calm at the end of the novel, as if everything in her head has suddenly clicked into place; or she is just tired of asking questions. A strange and surreal book, but one that is infinitely clever and definitely recommended.
Published by Peirene Press in June 2012.
Peirene Press are holding several events featuring the author Pia Juul. For more information, click here.