Friday, July 09, 2021

The Girl Who Died - Ragnar Jónasson


I am a big fan of Ragnar Jónasson’s three-book “Hulda Series,” but The Girl Who Died is the first standalone novel of his that I’ve read. This one was actually first published in 2018, but it was not translated into English until 2021, so it’s the latest of his work currently available in the US. Jónasson is a terrific storyteller, and I have come to expect his short flashbacks (usually written in italics) that are always a little incomprehensible when first encountered because it’s not clear even to whom the flashback if occurring. Jónasson uses that technique again in The Girl Who Died, and trying to figure out how it would all be tied together at the end of the book became part of the fun. 


It is 1985, and Una is not at all happy about the rather shabby lifestyle she is living on her own in an old-fashioned Reykjavík apartment. That’s why it is relatively easy for her to accept a job offer to teach a class of two students who live in the isolated Langanes Peninsula village called Skálar. It is only when she finally arrives in Skálar that Una realizes why she was the only one who bothered to apply for the job. She has only two students for a very good reason: there are only ten people living in the entire village. Early on, she knows that she did not want to live in Skálar even for five minutes, but she can’t figure out another place to be. So she stays…bad mistake.


The longer she stays in Skálar, the more Una wonders what she is doing there. One of her students — and the student’s mother — make clear how much they dislike her; the townspeople are cold and standoffish even when they go through the motions of acknowledging her existence; and the attic bedroom she now calls home may just be haunted by the ghost of a little girl who died in the room some sixty years earlier. For a while Una wonders if she may be losing her mind, and the consequent uptick in her wine consumption gives the locals something else to gossip about. 


It is only after one of the locals does not live long enough to make it to Christmas, and a mysterious stranger knocks on the front door of the home she lives in only to disappear again quickly, that Una realizes she’s probably not going crazy. Something really is going on in Skálar that the locals don’t want her to know about. And she may not live long enough to figure it all out on her own.


Bottom Line: The Girl Who Died is a spooky mystery akin to those of Stephen King, say, at his best, one of King’s few horror novels that doesn’t end up being laugh-out-loud funny because it’s so over the top. There is a nice twist at the end that sufficiently ties up the mystery without ruining the ghost story aspect that may more appeal to some readers. My only quarrel with the plot is being asked to believe that Una could be so sedentary that she did not run for her life — or her sanity — when she was offered several opportunities early on to do so. She hated everything about the town, its people, and her students before she even began to sense the danger she might be in. But then, if she had gone home, there would have been no story, would there?


Ragnar Jónasson

11 comments:

  1. I totally want to read this one! Did you like it as well as his Hulda series, or was that better? I have all on my TBR list...you know the list that keeps on growing, and growing, and growing... ;D

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    1. I think the Hulda series is considerably better than this one, but that could be because I love police procedurals so much and the Hulda books tend to go in that direction. This one is a crime novel, but not told from the points of view of cops.

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  2. Thanks for introducing me to Jonasson. I enjoyed the first book in the Hulda series (review to be posted soon) and am looking forward to reading the others. He's a very good writer.

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    1. I only learned of Jónasson from reading Cathy's book reviews myself, but word really does seem to be spreading quickly - at least inside the book blogging community. And that's really good to see.

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  3. I abandoned this one, but maybe I should give it another try!

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    1. It's definitely not my favorite, Jen, but as I told Lark, that's probably because I more enjoy crime fiction from the point of view of a cop than a potential victim or other bystander. The traditional "thriller" doesn't appeal to me nearly as much as the traditional detective story...especially if part of a series.

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  4. I read Snowblind (the first in the Dark Iceland series) and I think I have another book in that series. but I would like to try the first book in the Hulda series and this one too. I have it on a list to look for.

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    1. I just started that one a couple of days ago and I'm about 20% of the way done and enjoying it even though it's still in the "set-up" phase at that point. Still getting to know the main characters and watching the crime slowly taking form in alternating chapters.

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  5. My enjoyment of the book had a lot to do with the main character. She was a bit too...whiny. But a so-so book by this man beats a lot of writers' best for me.

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    1. She was most certainly unlikable. Her whininess didn't bother me quite as much as her inability to get out of there despite all the opportunities she had to do so. That reminded me too much of one of those silly horror flicks where people are always walking into danger rather than going the other direction. I always want to holler at them for their stupidity...and sometimes I start rooting for the bad guy to wipe all of them out before they can enter the gene pool.

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    2. You go a step further than I do. I usually just give a shout for some chlorine.

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