The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn – review

Published by Orenda Books

Publication date – 30 September 2016

Source – review copy

Translated by Rosie Hedger

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Two people in exile. Two secrets. As the past tightens its grip, there may be no escape…

TV presenter Allis Hagtorn leaves her partner and her job to take voluntary exile in a remote house on an isolated fjord. But her new job as housekeeper and gardener is not all that it seems, and her silent, surly employer, 44-year-old Sigurd Bagge, is not the old man she expected. As they await the return of his wife from her travels, their silent, uneasy encounters develop into a chilling, obsessive relationship, and it becomes clear that atonement for past sins may not be enough…

Haunting, consuming and powerful, The Bird Tribunal is a taut, exquisitely written psychological thriller that builds to a shocking, dramatic crescendo that will leave you breathless.”

My thanks to the publisher for my copy of this book.

Orenda Books have the knack of publishing challenging, diverse literature from authors dotted around the world. Their latest offering, The Bird Tribunal by Norwegian author Agnes Ravatn, is a perfect example of Orenda’s diverse portfolio.

Allis Hagtorn has accepted a job as housekeeper and gardener for Sigurd Bagge. Surprised to find Bagge isn’t the old man she had expected, but a taciturn man only a few years her senior. Allis spends her days tidying the garden, keeping out of Bagge’s way, and trying to forget the humiliating events that led to her self-imposed exile. But slowly things begin to change and as Allis and Bagge’s relationship alters and develops it becomes apparent that Allis may not be the only one with something to hide…

I have to admit I initially struggled with this novel. I couldn’t engage with Allis. She had a self-centred attitude that meant I could feel little sympathy for her situation. She tackled events in a manner that seemed to invite worry and stress, inventing problems that perhaps weren’t there. This impression continued throughout the book but I became used to her complex and unconventional persona. Bagge on the other hand was a character that was easier to understand. His initial demeanour was a rude standoffishness that was what was probably expected from someone living alone. His actions as the book progressed didn’t appear to me as threatening or potentially violent, it was more that they began to seem that way as projected by Allis’ fears and neuroses. This perhaps was Agnes Ravatn’s aim, having an unreliable narrator such as Allis allows the reader to feel unsure as to exactly what is happening, uneasy at dismissing Allis’s fears but also on edge, just in case they are true.

There is a claustrophobic feel to this story, ironically perhaps given that the tale centres on two characters sharing a house surrounded by an expanse of forest and fjord. This atmosphere is lent by the fact there are so few characters, Allis and Bagge are the main protagonists, with the only other two people that Allis interacts with barely appearing on the page. The disconcerting air is also propounded by the fact that speech is not differentiated with other descriptive narrative. There are no speech marks used throughout the novel. This gives the story a surreal quality, the reader is often unsure if something is said or thought, or indeed if some of the tale is not a figment of Allis’ imagination.

The second half of the novel develops at a faster pace, the story that unfolds is one that I had predicted but which is told with skill, with Agnes Ravatn showing a knack for creating a tense, chilling tale with often sparse prose, reflecting the isolation of the setting and the protagonists. There is an almost Hitchcock like suspense to the tale and I could easily imagine it as a black and white film, stark to highlight the beauty of the surroundings with the tense tale that unfolds.

A note on the translation. As is always the case with a good translation, the words read as if they were written directly by the author and not via the translator.

This is a short novel, less than 200 pages but it fits a lot into its small form. This is a tale of obsession, of madness and of the way the past has of coming back to haunt us. A challenging book but one I am pleased I read.

 

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