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OBLIVION
by Arnaldur Indriđason and Victoria Cribb, trans.
Harvill Secker, August 2015
300 pages
$35.99 CAD
ISBN: 1846559790


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

A few years ago, the devoted followers of Arnaldur Indriđason's Erlendur series were saddened to bid farewell to that gloomy detective as he disappeared into the Arctic mists. But we grieved too soon, as even Arnaldur seemed reluctant to let his policeman go quite yet. The last two years have seen the publication in English of two novels set in Erlendur's early years, REYKJAVIK NIGHTS and this one, called KAMP KNOX in its original Icelandic version. Evidently there remains a third to be translated, Einvígiđ set at the time of the Spassky/Fisher chess match in the 1970s.

OBLIVION takes place somewhere around 1978 and Erlendur is relatively new to police work. We learn rather little about his personal circumstances save that his marriage has recently ended and he is estranged from his family, forced to observe his little girl from a distance as she plays in a park. (Readers familiar with the older Erlendur will know how that turned out.) A dead body has bobbed up in a hot spring, and this appears no accidental death. The man has been transported to the spring and dumped, but his death was caused by a fall from a great height.

The dead man, Kristvin, was employed on the vast US military base near Keflavik. Erlendur and his senior officer, Marion Bries, discover that the American authorities are less than welcoming when they attempt to make enquiries among the base personnel, but happily, a black MP named Caroline Murphy is willing to stretch things a bit and help.

At the same time, Erlendur's attention has been directed to a very cold case - that of the disappearance a quarter of a century ago of a young girl. She seems inexplicably to have vanished on her way to school one morning and no trace of her was ever found. Those familiar with Erlendur's story will know that he is obsessed with tales of disappearance, and luckily it is a peculiarity that Marion appears willing to indulge. The narrative splits at this point, with Marion and Caroline working on Kristvin's murder and whatever may or may not have been going on at the base, while Erlendur tries to find out what happened to Dagbjört. He feels a sense of urgency as those who cared about the girl are dying off and he would like to provide a sense of completion before they too disappear.

Erlendur is also uncomfortable on the American base. He doesn't like the military, proud that Iceland has no army, and he views the American presence as a threat to Icelandic culture, with its cheap liquor, strong beer (only near-beer was legal at the time) and fast food. Erlendur adores the traditional fermented fish and does not worry, as does Marion, that its distinctive stench will cling to their clothes and embarrass them on the base. It may be this wariness about the American presence that makes him seem oddly indifferent to the case of the dead Kristvin. He never quite says it, but he may be thinking that sort of thing is only to be expected when you get too close to the Americans.

The more interesting of the investigations is the one regarding Kristvin, because the relationship between Marion and Caroline is intriguing. Marion, though appearing from time to time in the series so far, has never been a focus of attention, but now the character is central, especially because we cannot determine whether Marion is male or female. I've always assumed male, largely because Marion with an "o" is more commonly a boy's name, but the moment one notices that all indications of gender are absent, the developing relationship between Marion and Caroline becomes a great deal more interesting than it might otherwise have been. Do they bond as they do because both are women in a largely male milieu (the time, after all, is the late 70s)? If Marion is male, are we to see him as unusually free of the condescension toward women typical of the time? Curiously, there seems to be little sexual tension between them if Marion is male, but quite a bit more if female. It's all interesting enough to make me regret never learning Icelandic - the current translation, while serviceable enough, is far from subtle.

Apparently, Einvígiđ, still awaiting English translation, is set before Erlendur so much as became a cop and is strongly focussed on Marion as well as on a moment when remote Iceland came to international attention, if only for a moment, as the Spassky/Fisher chess match played itself out as a metaphor for the Cold War. Perhaps when it finally appears, the mystery of Marion will be resolved. Until then, however, OBLIVION combines a solid police procedural with fascinating details about the social history of Iceland in the latter half of the 20th century.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, August 2015

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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