Yrsa’s Someone To Watch Over Me

yrsaimage

Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Someone to Watch Over Me
Hodder and Stoughton, 15.99
Trans. B Philip Roughton
I’ve had lunch and supper with Yrsa. I was impressed. Not just by her writing but because not only is she a prolific writer but she is also a civil engineer, a grandmother and the author of acclaimed children’s books. I didn’t ask but I expect that like Wonder Women she leaps over buildings in one bound. I’m biased because I like murder mysteries and I particularly like Icelandic murder mysteries. I’ve got a bit of a crush on her main character, the lawyer, Thora Gudmundsdottir. That’s in spite of the fact that she has a German boyfriend, Matthew, who has moved in with her. She also has a two children: ten-year-old Soley and nineteen-year-old Gylfi: Gylfi’s girlfriend Sigga; and their son, Orri, now two and a half.” Gylfi got Sigga pregnant when he was sixteen. As the story begins, Thora’s parents appear. They’re dimwits about money and have got themselves in a terrible bind. They want to move into Thora’s garage. Hmmm, as much as I like Thora, I think I’ll leave her to Matthew.

One of the great strengths of Yrsa’s mysteries about Thora is that her main character is besieged by life. She worries that her parents moving in may cause Matthew to move out. She has to deal with Bella, the most obnoxious secretary in Iceland. Business isn’t always brisk and Thora and her partner scramble for work. This is the opposite of one of my favorite detectives when I was a youth: Nero Wolf. He was astute, calm, intellectual and raised orchids. While I will never lose my affection for Nero Wolf mysteries, I now much prefer Thora’s tangled life and her struggle to keep it under control while she sorts out the chaotic lives of the people who come to her for help.
Although Iceland is a society in which there isn’t a lot of mayhem, there has been a financial disaster brought on by bankers thinking they could ride the wave of speculation that was going on worldwide. Iceland was the first country to crash. There were international implications and complications but those most affected were ordinary people. The currency plunged in value. People lost their homes, their jobs, their savings. Yrsa sets the novel amidst the chaos of the financial crises. She brings the society to life.

Iceland, like all societies, has its psychopaths, its mentally challenged, its physically incapable, and its degenerate. It has its honest, honorable, loving, socially responsible people. The novel brings us into contact with the worst but also, in some ways, with the best. One of the best is Grimheidur, the mother of a man, Jakob, with Down’s Syndrome who has been convicted of setting a fire that killed five people. She fiercely believes in her son’s innocence.

Thora begins the process of collecting information that might be used to establish that Jakob is innocent. Her investigation brings her into contact with people she normally would not meet. She has to deal with, as in real life, people whose response is governed by their own self-interest. She learns about the tragedy of a young woman who can only blink her eyes.

“Hi.” He extended his hand. “I assume you’re Thora.” She nodded and he sat down at the tiny table that barely accommodated the two cups of coffee Thora had ordered, assuming the man would turn up on time. Now her cup was empty and the other one had stopped steaming.” The book is full of little scenes like this filled with what I called clincher details when I was teaching Creative Writing. These details give the narrator authenticity of voice. They allow the reader to suspend disbelief and enter the narrative.
I ridiculously stayed up until 1:30 in the morning reading Someone To Watch Over Me. I slept in the next morning and staggered into the kitchen in a disheveled state to make coffee.

If I have any qualms about the book it is simply that there are so many characters I found as I approached the end that I had to go back and look up just who they were. Yrsa constructs her plots well so her characters all had an important dramatic function but I did lose track of Margeir, the radio announcer, for example, in the last few chapters and had to flip back to remind myself. It’s really just a quibble when a book is 475 pages.

If you like a good plot, suspense, conflict, good characterization, setting, enjoyable writing, then buy Yrsa’s latest effort. Philip Roughton does a fine job of translation.

Book review: I know how I got this way

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One of the joys of being a writer and editor is the unexpected pieces of writing that drift in from the mail slot. One of these, sent by Jim Anderson, the proprietor of Jim Anderson Books, his business that buys and sells books and ephemera and collections of papers to do with the Icelandic North American community (or Iceland), is I know how I got this way by Janet LeBlancq.

This 32 page collection of reminiscences of “growing up in Manitoba with Icelandic grandparents, Amma and Afi is set in Ashern. The oral tradition is an ancient one in the Atlantic island home of her ancestors, passing on the history, trying to stay awake while men, women and children knitted through the long winter nights, sweaters, socks and mittens, to trade with the Danish ships that came, carrying the necessities the barren rock couldn’t provide.”

Janet says, “Amma and Afi’s homestead came complete with a two car garage and a morgue. My Afi was a funeral director; he and my Mom’s brother, Uncle Lawrence, operated a family business, burying everyone in the Interlake region of Manitoba.” Neil Bardal might have disputed the claim of burying “everyone in the Interlake region” but since the stories are anecdotes told from the perspective of a young girl, the claim is quite justified.

In one story, “The Backyard’s Burning”, (Our backyard funeral home burned to the ground in the winter of 1961.), she says it was fortunate that “the house was saved and that the fire hadn’t happened a week earlier. It had been a very busy time and the morgue had housed several bodies awaiting burial. The day of the fire, the morgue was empty. Could have been a crematorium!” If it had been me living at Afi and Amma’s and there had been as many as three bodies at a time in the funeral parlour, I, too, would have figured we were doing it all.

I am absolutely delighted that Jim managed to find two copies of this booklet (one for him, one to be shared by me and JO). It is publications like this, made up of honest, heartfelt stories, full of details that if they weren’t written down, would be forgotten in the hurly burly of life.

The author captures a feeling for the time, right after WWII ended. In her first story, she begins by saying “My parents met in Montreal in 1945 on V-E Day. My Mom was 35, a career woman, my Dad, a 41 year old miner. They got married in 1946. My Amma refused to travel from Manitoba to the wedding; she didn’t approve of my Mother marrying a Frenchman, and so far from the Icelandic connections. After I was born in 1947, she finally did visit us in Montreal and, 25 years later I would travel from Montreal to say my last farewell to Amma in a Winnipeg hospital.”

“On Saturdays my chores included washing that hearse; it was a beauty – 1929 Packard, black of course, with a red velvet interior and mahogany runner bars set in the floor….It was actually fun to wash and polish that beautiful car and I dreamed of the day I would be big enough to drive it.”

In “Church Revisited”, the narrator says, “In the beginning we went to church every Sunday because my Amma made us go….Our congregation was a reflection of our town, there being an equal number of Icelandic and German members. Germans sat on the right side of the church, Icelanders on the left.”

Some of the stories like “The Two of Diamonds” are about schoolhouse rivalries. “Raiders of the Edible Orbs” recounts a raid on an orchard for apples. After having read both stories, I sat and thought about, with a great deal of pleasure, similar incidents when I was about the same age as the narrator. “Anyone who has ever raided an orchard will tell you, nighttime raids are best.” The object of the raid, Mrs. Schartz’s apple trees “was only a block down the lane but we used such careful sneaking up techniques that it took us 20 minutes just to reach her orchard gate!” In my case during a raid in Gimli, our target was the crabapple tree of the local dentist. We would probably have worn Viking helmets on our raids if they’d been available but plastic Viking helmets were still far in the future.

In “Broken Hockey Sticks”, the narrator begins by saying that “It seemed that the boys had all the fun. They knew how to build the rafts, and they could get the teenage boys to help—and everyone knows that when you’re a 10 year old girl, the only teenagers that will talk to you are the ones who have to because they’re neighbours or family.” She goes on describe a summer where the girls far outshine the boys in a battle of the sexes that the boys aren’t even aware is happening.

It is on page 28 in “My Driving Career” that I found the only description I’ve ever seen of how driver’s tests were conducted in rural Manitoba when I was kid. The author, born in 1947, is eight years younger than me. However, rural Manitoba didn’t change much from 1939 to 1947. The towns were small, isolated, everyone knew everyone else. There were few, if any, secrets.

She started steering a car when she was three. She started driving a car as soon as possible. “When I was fifteen, Lloyd Barnes called my Mom and said, “We better give her a license.” And he did. My “test” was to drive Mom’s car to Lloyd’s cafe on Main Street, answer a skill testing question, “”When were you born?”), and sign my name. Then Lloyd sent me on an errand in the car; my safe return clinched the test.”

I know how I got this way
is short, it’s made of folded sheets stapled together, it was published by Dragonfly Publishing Arts, Hornby Island, B.C. V0R 1ZO in 1995. I think two things should happen. Logberg-Heimskringla could do worse than call Hornby to see if Janet LeBlancq is still there and, if she is, get permission to run some of the stories. If that happens, then maybe Dragonfly Publishing or Janet herself could run off a hundred copies in the expectation that many LH readers would identify strongly, as I did, with the stories and want to purchase a copy.

Janet, thanks, because of you, I’ve had a pleasant evening reliving my childhood in rural Manitoba.