Monday, January 29, 2018

Review of The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn (Orenda, 2016, original Norwegian 2013)

After an affair with her boss that ends in scandal, TV presenter Allis Hagtorn flees her job and partner, taking a job as a housekeeper and gardener in a remote fjord. She has little aptitude for either, but her new boss doesn’t seem to mind. Sigurd Bagge is a distant, surly, secretive middle-aged man whose wife is travelling. The pair form an uneasy relationship that gradually evolves into something more romantic but sinister. Allis is unsettled but drawn to Sigurd and has nowhere else to go, Sigurd alternatively pulls her close, then pushes her away. In the background the pair are haunted by Nor, Sigurd’s wife. Despite the tension, neither seems prepared to end their tryst despite the possible consequences.

The Bird Tribunal is a psychological tale of understated passion between two troubled souls set in a remote fjord in Norway. The story charts the unfolding relationship between Allis, a former TV presenter fleeing her past, and Sigurd, her new employer whose wife is travelling. The house and garden Allis has been hired to tend is isolated in a forest and perched above a fjord and boathouse, with the only transport a bike. Allis is unsettled, isolated and vulnerable; Sigurd is guarded and distant. Part of the house is closed off to Allis and initially she only sees Sigurd at meal-times and odd occasions. Ravatn charts the development of their tense relationship, haunted by Sigurd’s absent wife, Nor, and occasionally drawing on old Norse mythology. The strength of the story is the character development, the social interaction between Allis and Sigurd, and the sense of place. However, the narrative is linear and sparse, the psychological tension does not really increase in intensity (being relatively suffocating from the start), and the story works its way to a somewhat inevitable conclusion that didn’t quite deliver on all the foreboding. The result was an interesting and tense, but not quite fulfilling and compelling tale that had a few too many unanswered questions about Allis and Sigurd’s respective lives.

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