I’ ve been intrigued by Peirene Press since I first heard about their innovative approach to translated literature, focussing on novellas and described by the TLS as
“Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film.”
so I was very pleased to be sent a copy of Pia Juul’s The Murder of Halland, translated by Martin Aitken, to review. Then it sat around for a while waiting for its moment, which arrived on Thursday. Getting towards the end of a busy week and needing a break from the computer or a TV screen – the perfect chance to see if you really can read a Peirene book in one evening. Incidentally, it was only in writing this post that I realised I’d been reading their name wrong all along. Not per-eine. Pei-rene. Pie-re-knee.
Anyway, I settled down to read. Not sure what to expect. I like crime fiction, and I knew this wasn’t an ordinary detective novel. Yes, it’s about a murder, as the title suggests, but the cover informed me that:
“Pia Juul’s The Murder of Halland dismantles the rules of an entire genre.” (Dagens Nyheter)
It’s Danish. Does that mean it’s going to be Noir? I’m not so keen on Noir. The answer to that is no. In fact it’s not really a crime story at all. It’s really about Bess. Bess is not Halland’s wife, but she’s lived with him for ten years since walking out on her husband and daughter. She doesn’t really seem to know him though, and never seems sure whether she loves him. When he’s found shot dead in the street in their small town, everybody knows about it. It’s that kind of place. The local caretaker tries to arrest her, and then the police arrive. It’s not a police procedural either, though. Told largely in flashbacks and rather on the self-award side – Bess is an author and thus very knowing about writing – it’s about bereavement and grief, love and loss, families and relationships.
Bess talks in a jagged way, breathtakingly rude at times and yet very human. I could see myself snapping like that. Martin Aitken’s translation captures her voice (apparently) effortlessly. It’s clearly Scandinavian but I wasn’t playing my usual game of second guessing the translator (that’s a compliment, even if it doesn’t sound like one).
Full of riddles, the book left me with more questions than answers. I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say there’s no Hercule Poirot style grand denouement of whodunnit, how, why, when and where? I felt like I should re-read it before trying to write about it, because I really didn’t understand what was going on.
Perhaps I would pick up on more things a second time around. I don’t know.
But there’s one question I can answer: Yes, you can read a Peireine book in one evening. And on the basis of this one, I’ll be doing so again.