Having recently re-discovered the charms of the local library, I was delighted the other day to spot a copy of Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s third novel about lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottir, Ashes to Dust, and snapped it up. In this novel, Thora is hired by Markus, a 50ish well-off businessman, to allow him to gain access to the basement of his old family home in the Westmann Islands. The islands were covered in lava and ash in a volcanic eruption back in the early 1970s, and the houses there abandoned until now (2007), when they are being excavated as part of an archaeological project called the Pompeii of the North. Eventually, Thora negotiates access for Markus and accompanies him into the dusty, abandoned cellar with the eager archaeologists in tow – but they make a horribly gruesome discovery. Not only this, but in the eyes of the unsympathetically portrayed local police, Markus is the person most likely to be responsible. Thora therefore finds herself both acting for Markus and trying to find out for herself what really happened all those years ago, so she can find the real perpetrator.
In a parallel plot, a woman called Alba is found dead in her bed in her house in Reykjavik. The reader is sure the two incidents must be connected, not least because Alba and Markus grew up and went to school together on the islands. At first, Alba’s death is considered to be suicide but it rapidly transpires that the woman was murdered, in quite a horrible way. (In fact the first chapter of the novel is a gruesome description of Alba’s death from the victim’s perspective, which I could both have done without and found unnecessary for the plot – the rest of the book is mild in comparison.) Alba was a nurse, both at a plastic surgery practice and at the A&E department of the town’s hospital. She left the A&E job a few days before her death under something of a cloud, and Thora finds it difficult to find out why, although the reader knows that a rather unpleasant man called Adolf is somehow involved.
The author gradually pulls all these strings together as Thora digs into the past, visiting the islands several times with the secretary from hell, Bella, to help her – this makes a refreshing change from the rather bland Matthew, who does not feature in this book apart from in a few phone calls. The best parts of the novel are when Thora interviews all the old associates and families of Markus and Alba, in which we see the way of life and concerns of those who live in these remote parts: Thora encounters resistance, partly because Markus’s family are powerful and wealthy, in effect owning the main business of the region, so people are reluctant to say anything against any of them; and partly because nobody wants to betray old confidences or reveal nasty incidents that happened so long ago and have long since escaped the notice of the police. The descriptions of the volcanic eruption are also fascinating, as villages, farms and towns became buried and everyone and their animals had to escape the best they could. (This novel was written before, but published in English after, the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull this year, which adds a level of fascination, as does the description of the Cod War from the Icelandic perspective, somewhat different from the way it was portrayed in the British press, of course.)
Readers of previous novels in this series will also know that Thora has a rather stressful personal life: she is divorced with a teenage son and young daughter. At the end of the previous novel, the son and his girlfriend had a baby, so Thora has to support them as well as struggle to keep her practice going while doing her duty by her family. She’s a charming and humorous character, and the reader is rooting for her all the way. I particularly liked her negotiation with the golf clubs. There are also lots of astute, neat touches, not least asides about attitudes to whaling and catching/eating puffins.
This having been said, I feel that at 455 pages the novel is too long and slow for its plot – and either the translation or the editing could have been a bit sharper (or even, on some occasions, grammatical). The book also cried out for a map! It is not difficult for the reader to guess the outline of what must have happened in the past to create the dilemma of the present, so the main revelation is not a surprise. Although the author creates a great atmosphere of life in Iceland, particularly on the islands, as well as providing some neat details and a nice twist in the tail, the denouement seems a long time coming. I also think that the character of Thora, in particular her domestic set-up and, in this novel, Bella, are all intriguing but under-developed. Nevertheless, this novel is superior fare: the bleak, tragic life-story of Alba in particular is extremely well told, and the subplot of Adolf and his daughter creepily telling. Yrsa Sigurdardottir is a very talented author, but I feel that she could raise her game even further by fleshing-out her regular characters more within her excellent settings and narratives.