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by Ragnar Jónasson and Quentin Bates, trans.
Minotaur, January 2017
320 pages
ISBN: 1250096073

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In October 2008, Iceland's three major banks all failed. The national government refused to bail them out, agreeing that private institutions are not, in fact, too big to fail. The country went bankrupt. Its stock market experienced a 90% crash, and its people were shocked, amazed, dismayed, and frightened.

Immediately prior to these cataclysmic events, the action of Ragnar Jónasson's mystery novel SNOWBLIND commences. A young theology-school dropout, sometime philosopher, and rookie detective, Ari Thór, is living in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik with his superachieving medical-student girlfriend. She's just moved into his tiny flat, and they are looking forward to a stable if uninteresting future. Then Ari Thór is offered the job of a lifetime–a police position in Iceland's northernmost town, Siglufjörđu. In this cold, remote, provincial outpost, Ari Thór is soon called upon to investigate the accidental death of the sole local celebrity, a washed-up author of a mawkish 1940s novel which is mercifully left unquoted and largely without summary. Did the famous novelist accidentally fall, or was he killed? And if so, why? No wonder the publishing series to which this novel belongs is called "Dark Iceland."

While Ari Thór investigates this mystery, he also tries to solve the problem of his relationships: with his girlfriend, his vocation, and his country. To whom, and where, does he owe his loyalties? Which relationships will he let go? And in a life of failures and restarts, how can he gain others' trust, or know his own path? These personal questions are, of course, also national ones. There is something sublime about his working them out with a murderer on the loose, in this sort of modern Ultima Thule.

Jónasson's realistic but dramatic storytelling, sleight-of-hand shifting of point of view, and underreported attention to the imminent national crisis make SNOWBLIND a riveting read. Informed by Jónasson's memories of Iceland's remote north, where his grandparents lived, it made me want to learn more about contemporary Iceland and its remarkable recovery from the 2008 crisis.

The extraordinary ending not only paves the way for what will likely be an exciting series, but refuses to leave the world of the novel all tied up, re-organized, and set to rights. There isn't necessarily justice in Iceland, Ari Thór learns. There isn't necessarily justice at all. Not realizing this might be a part of Ari Thór's eponymous snow-blindness.

A sobering yet invigorating story, SNOWBLIND is a worthwhile contribution to the growing and increasingly popular Scandinavian noir tradition.

§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She specializes in nineteenth-century literature. https://uwgb.academia.edu/RebeccaNesvet

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, February 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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