Agnes Ravatn, The Bird Tribunal (Fugletribunalet, 2013, translated by Rosie Hedger, 2016)
It’s a little unfair, but this kind of (usually) female gothic is haunted – Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca springs to mind, as does (to a lesser extent) Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, as well as Hitchcock’s Rebecca and The Birds. Oh, and Bluebeard.
This wasn’t the first book I’d bought in a real shop since the lockdown, but it was my first expotition out of the postcodes and a visit to the Oxford Street Bookshop. It leapt out at me from the crime and thriller section, and it was only after I left the shop that it was a Book at Bedtime serial, which I’d only caught sections of. And for some reason had thought of Frankenstein.
It’s a first-person narration – so you know she will survive, short of a broken off manuscript – from the point of view of Allis Hagtorn, a former female presenter of history documentaries on Norwegian television and before that an academic (although at some point she has to look up a term that surely fitted into her period of history). After some kind of scandal, she had left her husband (or he has left her) and applied to be housekeeper and gardener to Sigurd Bagge, who lives on an isolated fjord.
Bagge is married, but his wife has gone away, and he is demanding and he is secretive, and you kind of get the feeling that she’ll get the hots for him, only here there’s no housekeeper to object and set fire to the house. There is a Disapproving Shopkeeper, who can tut in a similar way. And, clearly, he has a secret (I did say he was secretive), and a forbidden bedroom and workshop.
So, we’re waiting for her to tell us her secret – in a, well, you could just tell us as you are telling the story kind of way – and sooner or later she will find out his, the only question being how nasty it is for her.
If I were more familiar with the story of Baldur, I would be able to say whether it’s a significant intertext, and the actual bird tribunal feels as if it comes from somewhere (a Dennis Wheatley novel, probably). And if it were a longer book, you might have time to wonder if Sigurd had asked Allis for references when he employed her. But it is a compulsive pageturner, just about short enough to read in a single sitting.