Sunday, January 17, 2021

Review: BETRAYAL

BETRAYAL by Lilja Sigurðardóttir, translated by Quentin Bates (Orenda Books, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Burned out and traumatised by her horrifying experiences around the world, aid worker Úrsula has returned to Iceland. Unable to settle, she accepts a high-profile government role in which she hopes to make a difference again.

But on her first day in the post, Úrsula promises to help a mother seeking justice for her daughter, who had been raped by a policeman, and life in high office soon becomes much more harrowing than Úrsula could ever have imagined. A homeless man is stalking her – but is he hounding her, or warning her of some danger? And why has the death of her father in police custody so many years earlier reared its head again?

As Úrsula is drawn into dirty politics, facing increasingly deadly threats, the lives of her stalker, her bodyguard and even a witch-like cleaning lady intertwine. Small betrayals become large ones, and the stakes are raised ever higher…

If you pick up one of Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s novels expecting the cliched Nordic Noir tropes of dour, alcohol-soaked detectives chipping away at a wintry investigation into a disturbing murder, you’re in for a shock. The award-winning Icelandic storyteller is a sparkling example of the variety of Scandi crime: she crafts slick thrillers with plenty of pace; diverse characters thrust into unexpected situations.

Her ‘Reykjavik Noir’ trilogy centred on a desperate young mother who turns to cocaine smuggling and gets entwined with international drug lords and bankers caught up in white collar crimes and the banking crash. BETRAYAL is something different - a standalone - while still providing plenty of the facets that Anglophone readers have enjoyed in Sigurðardóttir's past tales (ably translated by Bates).

Ursula is a burnt-out aid worker who returns home to Iceland and is arm-twisted to temporarily become a government minister. It’s a desk job where she won’t face the daily horrors of disease, war, and famine that she’s experienced for many years while working in aid camps - experiences that still give her nightmares. But when Ursula makes a promise to help a mother accusing a policeman of raping her daughter – a case others are trying to sweep under the rug – and a homeless man with ties to her past starts stalking her, it seems Iceland can be just as dangerous as war zones and famine-struck nations.

Sigurðardóttir’s latest tale, adroitly translated by Quentin Bates, is about much more than dirty politics and deadly threats. She expertly takes us into the lives of her characters and the traumas they battle. From Ursula to her ambitious bodyguard to the families of the accused policeman and his alleged victim (both of whom are feeling unfairly victimized) to the homeless man who knew Ursula’s murdered father. And perhaps killed him. BETRAYAL is a fine piece of storytelling that touches on several important issues, from the personal to the social and global, while never getting bogged down. 

Very good.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter. 


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