My first read for #WITmonth was The Murder of Halland from Peirene Press (translated by Martin Aitken). Pia Juul I discovered, is Denmark’s foremost literary writer, she is a completely new voice to me. Although there is a mystery at the heart of this short novel, The Murder of Halland is not a standard crime novel. Fans of those absorbing scandi-dramas and the like, broadcast in the UK on BBC4, will appreciate the mood of this book. The real mysteries at the heart of this novel are the secrets discovered by Bess about the man who she had lived with for a decade.
Pia Juul’s style is a fairly straightforward one, short, punchy sentences with an enigmatic narrative voice, make for a quick, compelling read. Where Juul is particularly clever is in her misdirection and the way she creates a mood which mirrors the internal struggle of her characters. The reader is not always sure what is happening. There is a confusion, of that particular kind those of us who have experienced bereavement might recognise.
Bess and Halland live in a small Danish town, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else – at least superficially. They aren’t actually married, Bess left her husband and teenage daughter to be with Halland ten years earlier. Since then her daughter has refused to have anything to do with her – and there has been some kind of estrangement between Bess and her elderly grandfather in England too. Bess; a writer working from home, has suffered by the separation from her daughter, Halland and her work seem to have been her life.
The novel opens the night before the events which are destined to change Bess’s life, plunging her into a world of uncertainty where nothing makes sense.
“The night before, we sat in the living room. I had coffee; he drank a beer. We watched a police drama. ‘I wouldn’t mind looking like her,’ I said, referring to the detective, Danish TV’s only mature heroine. ‘You don’t, though, do you?’ I looked over at him. Women’s faces shrivel; men acquire substance. ‘You’ve acquired substance,’ I said. ‘Where?’ he asked, worried. ‘Ha ha ha,’ I laughed, mockingly.”
It’s all very normal – very domestic, Halland goes to bed, Bess stays up to work a bit. At dawn, Bess is still in her study, so falls asleep on the sofa. Not long afterwards she is awoken by a sudden noise – assuming it is Halland leaving the house, she is unconcerned. However, what she heard was Halland being shot – in the street near their home. A local caretaker claims to have heard Halland say ‘my wife killed me.’ Yet Bess – who isn’t his wife – was in the house – and Halland has never been married.
“Halland lay alone in a bare room with a sheet over him. He looked the same and yet he didn’t. I both knew him and didn’t know him. I was his and he was mine, only now we weren’t. We were both alone. I laid my hand gently against his cheek, a gesture I made whenever he seemed in pain and I didn’t have the courage to ask him if anything was wrong.”
A police investigation begins, naturally enough, although there really is little sense of urgency. Bess enters into a period of unreality, moving through the world with a confusion almost bordering on disassociation. She speaks to her mother, asking her to contact her daughter Abby, hears her grandfather in England at ninety-six has been unwell, remembers events from the last decade, the time she left her husband, the time Halland was ill. Bess’s grief is painfully explored. There’s a sense of not knowing how to react – how she should speak to her neighbours – how she might appear to them – and is she doing what is expected of a bereaved woman?
“A grieving woman could sit alone on a jetty in the early morning. But not with a book in her hands.”
Each day seems to bring new questions and new revelations. Keys for some unknown door are found among Halland’s things. A heavily pregnant girl turns up – Pernille – claiming to be Halland’s niece, with a story about a locked room in her apartment. Who is their neighbour Brandt’s lodger? Why does Brandt not appear at Halland’s funeral – has he disappeared? Finally, Abby turns up to Bess’s delight, a distant, cool young woman – her attitude mirroring the atmosphere of the entire novel.
There is ambiguity in Pia Juul’s novella, and so if you’re looking for neat and tidy ending, this probably won’t provide it – personally I rather like that. If you’re not looking for a typical murder mystery or police procedural – which the English title of this book could lead you to expect then there is an awful lot to admire in this deftly crafted little book.
I am hoping to read a couple more books for #WITmonth,but have determined to finish my #20booksofsummer list first.