The Murder of Halland: Book Review

I recently received a present in the mail courtesy of Peirene Press.  Books in the mail bring back what I miss with technology.  I never get interesting mail anymore, and sadly have started purchasing e-books because they tend to be cheaper and slightly more convenient.  So this gift was a good reminder of some of the beauties of doing things traditionally.  

Peirene Press is a small publishing house in London.  It specializes in contemporary European literature,  mostly publishing works that are in translation and short.  The book I received was part of their  Small Epic series.  The Press in itself is something that is fascinating, bringing back the tradition of literary salons, and books mailed to your house.  Its a book lover’s dream. Check them out:  http://www.peirenepress.com/.

So after ranting on tradition and publishing I’ll now turn to the actual focus of this article.  The review.  The Murder of Halland is a short Danish story by Pia Juul.  The novel revolves around the death of Halland and is told through the eyes of his partner Bess.  Halland’s life, like all victims of murder mystery, is doused in secrecy that comes out as the police and Bess begin to investigate his affairs.  The story is quick moving and filled with just enough detail and intrigue to keep the reader engaged.  However, the crux of the novel is not the murder but Bess’ journey of bereavement and her assessment of those around her.  Juul’s creates a character that I can relate to.  Bess isn’t your traditional mourning partner.  She hides her feelings and deceives even herself, so that her emotions come out in absurd but also realistic ways.  Through my experience this is how death is really dealt with.  It is not something as simple as donning black garments and being sad.  Its a mixture of denial, anger, sadness, and a pinch of madness.  Bess emulates these qualities extremely well and her journey is one that is both funny and one that I think most, despite there reservations, can relate to.  She is continually told she is not grieving or behaving properly.  However, I think she is grieving and behaving exactly as the rest of us would, in a way that is absurd and to some extent uncontrollable.      

One issue with books written in a foreign language is the problem of translation.  Indeed, no matter how good a translation is it can never have the exact same effect as the work read in its original language.  However, if we were to only read works written in our first language then there would be a whole corpus of amazing literature that we would miss out on.  Juul’s story is translated by Martin Aitken.  It is an ideal book for translation, for the style utilizes short snappy sentences with little embellishment.  There is little imagery, metaphor, or allusions and thus not much gets lost in translation.  This is not to say that the novel isn’t a magnificent specimen of prose. The short sentences are on one level because the story is plot based, it is a murder mystery after all, however,  it is also a product of its being channeled through the character of Bess and her current state of disenchantment and grief.  It portrays these qualities amazingly in style and thus the short sentence and simplistic style is useful and appropriate for multiple reasons.  

The Murder of Halland, while not a normal light-hearted summer recommendation, is one that can be read in a single sitting and will keep you engaged and interested.  I highly recommend it.  And rest assured there are laughs to be had. Especially with Bess and her druken escapades, which include her somehow ending up hungover after a blackout in a crazy lady’s house in the woods.  And on that note, I’ll leave you to go pick up Pia Juul’s book.   

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