Sunday, January 4, 2015

Review: ON A SMALL ISLAND by Grant Nicol

ON A SMALL ISLAND by Grant Nicol (Amazon Digital, 2014)

Reviewed by Jeannie McLean

New Zealander Grant Nicol, now living in Iceland, is the author of recently published ON A SMALL ISLAND - a worthy addition to Icelandic crime noir.

Ylfa Einarsdottir, one of three daughters of recluse Einar Dagsson. did not endear herself to me, as by her own admission in the first few pages, she was a jealous, crazy, promiscuous young woman. Her sister Elin, even more unlikeable, drops two bombshells: their father is guilty of incest and she is financing her move from Iceland by blackmailing her married lover.

A few pages in, and the combination of a dysfunctional family, flawed but strong-willed and courageous main character, a cruel and gruesome backstory set in the harshness of the Icelandic climate, had me hooked.

The style is first person narration which gives us insight into Ylfa’s character. Why she complains about her older sister, but cares deeply when she goes missing. Why she continues to visit her father, although he shows little love towards her or her sisters. There is a possible explanation hidden in the lack of love in the family for Ylfa’s long list of short-lived love affairs.

Elin says early in the story ‘sooner or later…things come back to haunt us.’ She was referring to her own actions, but the reader picks up this will be instrumental to the motive for the several gruesome crimes that are committed.

The story, moving mainly between Reykjavik and the family farm at Hafnarfjordur moves at pace, with plenty of twists, turns, tension and new developments to keep the reader trying to work out connections: break-ins, seedy, but rich businessmen who have somehow managed to survive the 2008 financial meltdown, unexplained absences, a glimmer of hope in the attraction to Stefan Jon, the reporter, who has theories about the biblical notes left at various crime scenes, past events involving wayward boys and bullying children.

At first, Ylfa and her sister Elin are unlikeable, albeit very interesting. Elin remains unlovable but we begin to see Ylfa’s motivations. While she foolishly places herself in danger a number of times, we soon care about her well-being as the body count rises and we realise how prophetic Elin’s words were. The chain-smoking, grumpy Detective Grimur Karlsson, is the voice of common sense who Ylfa dislikes as he does not take her seriously and Einar Dagsson must be as he is for a reason. The most lovable ‘characters’ in the entire story are the horses!

Nicol weaves enough historical detail (I assume it is accurate) about the 2008 financial crisis, American servicemen on the island, abuse at boys’ homes long since closed, to provide logic to events and motivation to actions.

There is a slight tendency to ‘dump’ backstory, and Ylfa’s relationship with her father borders on unbelievable at times but plotlines diverge and converge very nicely, I didn’t pick the ‘baddie’ early on and it is all wrapped up neatly, but not too nicely, at the end.

Nicol's second book, THE MISTAKE, will be available this month and I will be keeping my eye out for it.

Jeannie McLean, author, lives in New Zealand, reads crime novels, especially those written by New Zealanders or Scandinavian writers, and already plans her second trip to Iceland mid-2015.

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