Snowblind by Ragnar Jónasson

I’ve read with interest the fantastic feedback that Ragnar Jónasson’s Snowblind has received this week, as it reached number one in the UK Kindle chart. People seemed to have been blown away by this story of a rookie policeman in a sleepy Icelandic town. I can fully understand why.

Snowblind has quite a slow and sometimes confusing start, and while I was a little irritated by this as I was reading it, the reasons for this becomes more apparent as the second half of the narrative unfolds. My advice would be to stick with it.

Don’t get me wrong; whilst a little slow-going, the first half of the book has plenty to compliment. Jónasson’s writing is stunning. His descriptions of Reykjavík, then Siglufjördur, are beautifully poetic, as he describes the landscape and the severe weather conditions perfectly, striking a balance between the ominous sense of foreboding and the sublime splendour of the snow-covered towns. As the title of the book suggests, the intense wintry conditions plays a massive part in this narrative. Of course, the use of pathetic fallacy is often used in novels to further intensify a sense of mystery, however, Jónasson uses this literary device to the extreme with startling effect, making the blizzards and its subsequent effects on this small place an extra, troublesome character.

Snowblind follows Ari Thór, a newly trained policeman, who seems to be a generally unsettled young man. He has given up on a theology degree, when it failed to help him find a much-desired spiritual belief after the disappearance of his father and death of his mother, so he has now trained as a policeman. Despite having found a woman he loves, he leaves her behind to take a job in the relatively closed off town of Siglufjördur, which effectively has one road in, one road out via a tunnel through the mountains. Disappointed that his girlfriend, Kristen, hasn’t followed him (although not closing the door on their relationship) Ari Thór embarks on his new career move alone, with a heavy feeling of trepidation.

Met on his arrival by the sergeant in charge, Tómas, he is assured that the role of the police in Siglufjördur is not necessarily like other towns as not a lot happens of a criminal nature in this relatively small community of residents and he jokes that any “out-of-towners” are required to prove themselves. Nicknamed the “Reverend”, because of his past theological studies, the town initially welcomes Ari Thór, until he starts to investigate the well-established residents as he suspects that all is not as it seems after the apparent murders of two residents. Ari Thór suffers throughout the novel from claustrophobic panic attacks and he struggles to sleep soundly as he comes to terms with just how far removed he is from his old life in Reykjavík with Kristen and how shut off he is, particularly when an avalanche shuts the only exit from this strange town. His potential romance with another troubled outsider, Ugla, gives Ari Thór more reason to feel nervous.

Interspersed with the linear chapters, which are headed with the date and location, are odd chapters (written in italics to differentiate from the main plot) which describe scenes that could be past, present or future as they are not dated like the others. These chapters describe crimes that are taking (or have taken) place which all serve to link with Ari Thór’s investigations. Initially encouraged to treat the death of prolific author Hrólfur Kristjánsson as a tragic accident, Ari Thór’s persistence pays off as he seems to uncover evidence that adds suspicion to his death, forcing Tomás to concur that Ari Thór’s instincts may have been right.

Jónasson cleverly builds the tension by giving no clue about where these events in italics fit into the plot until right at the end. Initially disconcerting, but ultimately providing all the clues needed to work it all out in the end, I was kept guessing until the final reveal. My suspicions were completely wrong, I’m very pleased to say, which further credits this intelligently written narrative. Whilst Ari Thór evidently has a lot to learn, he has, perhaps inadvertently, installed himself into the Siglufjördur community and I look forward to finding out what he does next. Even the novel’s ending still leaves the reader guessing but you’ll have to read the book to find out how. I’m not going to give away any spoilers!

This has been my first Nordic Noir read and although I had misgivings initially, I was glad that I persisted. The slow build up to the action adds to the excitement as the plot takes shape. Ragnar Jónasson is an extremely talented writer and credit should also be given to translator, Quentin Bates, who must have undoubtedly added to the brilliance of this narrative. The taster of Nightblind, Jónasson’s next novel, at the back of Snowblind has certainly enticed me to read on, and I look forward to its release in June 2016. This novel completely deserves the wonderful response that it has received and I have every confidence that Nightblind will receive the same success.