Larsson, Asa – ‘Until Thy Wrath Be Past’ (translated by Laurie Thompson)
Hardback: 288 pages (Aug. 2011) Publisher: MacLehose Press ISBN: 0857050729
Let me get my verdict on this novel out of the way first: brilliant. It has been a long wait for those of us for whom Asa Larsson’s novels strike a deep chord. Her first three books about Rebecka Martinsson were published in excellent translations by Marlaine Delargy in the UK between 2006 and 2008; only now in 2011 is the fourth book in the series published in translation, thanks to MacLehose press taking on this talented author. The new translator, Laurie Thompson, provides as empathetic and beautiful interpretation as his predecessor, I am glad to say.
Rebecka is a young woman who typifies a modern conundrum. She was born in Kiruna in Lapland, the far north of Sweden, yet has escaped an unhappy adolescence of religious bigotry and worse (see SUN STORM/THE SAVAGE ALTAR) to become a financial lawyer in Uppsala. The novels are as much about Rebecka’s inner tension between the successful urban professional life (epitomised by her colleague, and later lover, Mats) and where her heart lies, in the remote and wild villages of the north where the old people cling to a vanishing way of life (epitomised by her old neighbour Sivving), as they are about mysteries.
There is always a miasma of the supernatural surrounding Rebecka and the other characters and settings in these novels; sometimes this takes the form of religious experience (SUN STORM/THE SAVAGE ALTAR); sometimes of the “spiritualism” of animals (the wolf in THE BLOOD SPILT) or people (the Sami girl in THE BLACK PATH); and here, in UNTIL THY WRATH, it is a dead person who observes events until she can rest, as well as a hefty dose of biblical reverence and passion.
Don’t think from the above that these themes overwhelm the novels, far from it. Nevertheless, they form a resonance that binds the books together more uniquely than the usual temporal sequence of a crime-fiction series. In UNTIL THY WRATH, Rebecka has turned her back on the Uppsala office and has set herself up as the local prosecutor in Kiruna, a post she loves, not least because she can spend time with Sivving (her beloved grandmother’s old neighbour) and in the cold but beautiful countryside. Mats, still based in Uppsala, is not happy about the arrangement, constantly trying to make Rebecka return to the city life – where, as one elderly character has it, people are judged by what they own rather than what they have done.
The trigger for the plot of UNTIL THY WRATH is the discovery of the body of a young student, apparently drowned. By the “dead body speaking to the reader” device, we know more than the police about what really happened, or at least some of the story. Although I feel that this plot device has become somewhat clichéd, it is not overdone here – though I could have done with less of it in a novel that is so strong in other respects. Anna-Marie Mella is the policewoman in charge of the investigation, whom we know from previous novels. In THE BLACK PATH she and her trusty deputy, Sven-Erik, fell out over the dangerous dénouement; unfortunately over three years later I have forgotten the details and wish the author had provided one or two more hints here about the cause of the now-fractured relationship. Mella presses on with the case, but Rebecka as prosecutor decides to take over and spends time interviewing the old great-aunt of the dead girl (like that of Sivving, a lovely character study) as well as a sinister family of possibly crooked businessmen and their associates, making some insightful deductions. The mystery is somehow related to World War Two, when the Swedes, officially neutral, helped the Germans with transport to the Baltic coast. This is a fascinating story whose background is explained in the Wikipedia entry on Kiruna. With great skill, the author weaves together witness accounts and secrets from the past in juxtaposition with the present, in particular depicting a pair of brothers with deceptive cleverness – in part this is where the quotation used in the title comes into play.
I shan’t write more here as this review is already too long; suffice it to say that the plot is a satisfying one; Rebecka is a determined heroine who adores dogs and shares with the dead young woman a visceral attraction to the old ways of the villages and traditional lives of those who live on the land, rather than joining those of their generation who live in a so-called sophisticated but empty environment – no doubt a source of future tension between her and Mats. UNTIL THY WRATH confirms my view that Asa Larsson is, along with Johan Theorin, writing today’s highest-quality psychological crime novels, particularly strong in their evocation of the local communities, myths and superstitions that are all in danger of dying out in our globalised, homogenised society.