Tuesday, March 7, 2017


THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn, tr: Rosie Hedger (Orenda Books, 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

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… 

Norwegian starlet Agnes Ravatn's first novel to be translated into English is an elegant chiller, absorbing and atmospheric. While THE BIRD TRIBUNAL is relatively short in length, it packs a powerful punch, slowly drawing you in like Ali in a rope-a-dope before its strong finish.

Allis Hagtorn starts a menial job tending to a remote house on an isolated fjord. Her old job was far more glamorous. She was the face of television programs, about history - but after a scandal she now just wants to escape her own history. Get away from it all - her job, her partner, her reputation.

But nothing is as it seems. Her new employer isn’t the elderly man she expects, but middle-aged Sigurd Bagge, a gruff man of set expectations and few words. His wife is away, it’s unclear when she’ll return. Allis is hired to keep the house and garden in order, for an undetermined time.

They’re two strangers, in voluntary exile. As Allis settles into the uneasy rhythms of her new life, the weeks pass, and questions mount. How long will she stay? How long does Sigurd want her to stay? Does he appreciate her presence? How does she feel about him? Where did his wife go?

Ravatn creates a creeping sense of unease, crocheting suspense as Allis goes about her new day-to-day life; hours, days, and weeks full of manual labor and plenty of alone time for questions to swirl in her skull. Ravatn elegantly brings the peace and menace of the setting to vivid life, the isolated house on the fjord a character-like shadow in this tale of obsessions. There's a touch of The Shining, with a sense that being alone with our own thoughts may not always be a peaceful and relaxing thing.

Ravatn teases the reader with snippets of information about the two main characters, leaving a lot unsaid. Like Allis, we're left to wonder. The prose is elegant and beautiful, the setting and tension brought to life with small details and plenty of subtext. There's an interesting mix of dark and light in this book - in some ways it reads like a charming evocation of a rural setting, but then there's a constant feeling of unease, like a shadow you just can't quite catch out of the corner of your eye. Flickering, malingering, malignant. We know something bad has happened, or might happen... but are we just falling victim to the isolation and our own whirring minds, ourselves?

Domestic suspense with a twist; creepy and wonderful.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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