This is a delightfully gloomy Norwegian novel about tragedy, death, and loss of one’s treasure. You know you’re off to a good start with a sentence like this:
Jenny Brodal had not had a drink in nearly twenty years. She opened a bottle of Cabernet and poured herself a large glass.
Jenny is 75 and her daughter Siri is throwing her a birthday party at their summer home, Mailund, on a winding, misty coast south of Oslo. We will learn the roots of Jenny’s alcoholism and its connection to the tragedy that is going to occur the evening of her party — the disappearance of 19-year-old nanny Milla. Milla was the daughter of a well known American photographer and had just that summer started working for Jenny’s daughter Siri Dreyer. Siri is a successful restauranteur and her husband Jon a renowned novelist struggling with writer’s block. Milla watches little Liv and adolescent Alma, an unusual and troubled girl. Two years after the party, in the next chapter, Ullman starts with:
Milla, or what was left of her, was found by Simen and two of his friends when they were digging for buried treasure in the woods.
And so for the rest of the novel, there is an unraveling of the past — what happened to Jenny and to Milla, and what else have our characters buried?
Relatively early in the story, we learn the particulars of what happened to Milla; we have a pretty good idea of who killed her and how (it’s quite horrible). And we know what haunts Jenny from her past. But is it as simple as it seems? Milla’s mother starts to contact Jon Dreyer after Milla’s disappearance, with questions that imply that she thinks they are hiding something. We know that Jon is a serial philanderer and had his eye on Milla. We know that Jenny went out drunk driving with Alma on her birthday. We know that Alma is a strange girl with troubling obsessions and compulsions. And Siri is brittle and resentful of everyone: her mother, her husband and particularly Milla.
The novel is both well paced and well written. Even though the critical action occurs in summer, Ullmann conjures a cold atmosphere full of foreboding at Mailund. As the mists roll in the evening of the party and Milla heads out alone, the reader is on edge knowing that her end is near but not exactly when or how it will happen. Moreover, the odd behaviors of Alma and Jenny’s companion Irma (they both scare the little boy Simen) are unsettling. Should we pity or fear them? Jon and Siri have a contentious relationship; Siri is resentful of Jon’s inability to get any work done and feels that she carries all the burdens of caring for the family financially and otherwise. She is missing the love that characterized their early relationship, but she is “kinked” physically and emotionally and unable to straighten herself out. Jon, meanwhile, is adrift. He can’t write, carries on an affair with a neighbor long after he has grown tired of her, and assiduously deletes messages from his phone to cover his tracks. Jon thinks that moving away and deleting that which he cannot confront are the keys to his success. But of course, in the end, he will have to come to terms with his writing, his wife, his troubled daughter, and Milla’s parents.
A good choice for those who are drawn to dark Scandinavian novels, mystery, murder.