When I opened my eyes again, I knew a sound had woken me, but I had no idea what sound. An echo reverberated inside me. – from The Murder of Halland, page 12 –
Many years after Bess has left her husband and young daughter, Abby, to move in with Halland the two lovers are living in a small town in Denmark. One morning, Bess is woken by a sound and discovers Halland has been murdered – shot – in the village square. Who has killed Halland? Thus begins the very literary, mind-bending novella by Pia Juul.
Juul is somewhat of a cultural phenomenon in her native country of Denmark, but she is new to a U.S. audience through this adept translation published through Peirene Press. The Murder of Halland appears, at first, to be a whodunnit. But Juul turns the genre of crime fiction on its head by taking us on a journey through loss instead.
Bess is a writer, an intellectual, who mourns her shattered relationship with her daughter and has a strained, if not disconnected, relationship with both her mother and grandfather. When Halland dies, she seems to go off the deep end – stealing money, drinking excessively, flirting with her neighbor, rekindling a sexual relationship with her ex-husband, and abandoning her work. Tantalizing clues emerge about Halland – a secret room, shuffling of financial accounts and a pregnant niece who apparently was getting all of Halland’s mail forwarded to her. None of it makes sense to Bess or to the reader. As Bess moves through her life now absent of Halland, she begins to re-examine her past and contemplate her future.
Juul’s writing is surreal at times. There are seemingly unconnected events which never get fully explained, such as the disappearance of a neighbor. Juul painstakingly develops the character of Bess while keeping the reader guessing about the real motivations of the secondary characters. It becomes clear, eventually, that Bess is an unreliable narrator who may be hiding her own secrets.
The Murder of Halland packs a lot of punch in a short number of pages. It is a sometimes bizarre, always twisting journey down a path of grief and dark secrets. The ending startled me and was somewhat baffling. Indeed, I paged back to the beginning and began to read again wondering if I had missed an important clue earlier in the story.
This is not a traditional piece of crime fiction. It is a sharply observed, intellectually stimulating piece of literary fiction. Readers who enjoy translated works which challenge established genres will find this little gem worth the read.
FTC Disclosure: This novel was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.