In a minor masterstroke, Icelandic author Ragnar Jónasson is telling his ‘Hidden Iceland’ series in reverse order. That’s not obvious when you read the first book to feature detective Hulda Hermannsdottir, The Darkness, which gets the ball rolling in the twilight of her career.
But then all becomes obvious with The Island, set fifteen years earlier when Hulda is fifty-something and feeling it. She’s already survived the worst imaginable personal circumstances, and is a long way down her slide into bitter emotional isolation. But this version of Hulda is flinty and stubborn, still determined to succeed in the police department. She’s committed and methodical, and desperate not to be out-flanked by younger detectives with glossy qualifications and good connections.
Hulda’s opportunity arises with a sudden death on a remote island – possibly linked to a murder case from a decade ago. Back then, a young woman was murdered in a summer cabin. When the suspect committed suicide, the case was closed. Still haunted by those events, the victim’s closest friends gather for a remembrance reunion ten years later… and another of them dies in suspicious circumstances.
In many ways this book is like Iceland itself; slow to reveal its secrets, a place where the barren becomes the beautiful. Jónasson portrays the remote region around Ísafjörður and the storm-lashed island perfectly, evoking the genuine wonder of the wilderness and the powerful pull of natural seclusion.
I struggled with other aspects of The Island however. Can’t say I like Hulda, even though she clings on grimly despite monstrous emotional upheaval and a stagnant career. She’s a significant literary creation who feels completely credible, but not someone who inspires empathy.
I was also frustrated by the mystery in this book, the actual whodunit. The revelations come thick and fast in the closing stages but there’s little scope to solve the puzzle as you go along. Jónasson only supplies incomplete snapshots of the two deaths from awkward angles, obscuring the eventual outcome beyond my abilities of prediction.
But perhaps that’s because the real story is all about Hulda and, in effect, this is her ‘difficult middle’ episode. I found myself far more intrigued by the references to her past – knowing what’s to come in her future – than I was by the main murder-mystery plot.
The Island, then, is a solid morality tale, in which various sins of the past demand recompense in the present. You could read it as a standalone, but you’ll understand far more about the central character if you read The Darkness first. This book felt like a stepping stone along the way – and I find myself awaiting the arrival of The Mist (out next year, I understand) with considerable anticipation.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Island by Ragnar Jónasson is available at Amazon