I’ve been reading a fairly heavy-going book, something that can only be read in short bursts however attentive or determined a reader I might be, and whilst I have been avoiding simultaneous readings whilst I have been trying to focus more attention on the books I read, I really wanted a bit of light relief. Examining my shelves revealed this slight volume from Peirene Press, books which they describe as the literary equivalent of a movie: something that can be read in a couple of hours. I started reading it on a Tuesday morning, Tuesday being my ‘no internet’ day and I got up at commuting hour on a work from home day and whilst my husband snoozed in bed I spent a lovely two hours reading and finished the book before the working day began. It’s such a long time since I guzzled a book down like that, I’ve been so focused on deeper reading that it’s not really been possible, and it felt like a real treat, a guilty little pleasure. I decided then that I wouldn’t read the book again, I wouldn’t spend a week on it, no analysis or deep reading, just a book, a couple of cups of coffee and a morning spent sitting in a quiet house, the sky all grey outside, and me in my pyjamas, the cat on my knee, all warm and cosy spending my time with a book. Well, there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.
The Murder of Halland has all the hallmarks of a classical whodunnit – there’s a gun, a murder and a mystery – but there’s something more to it than that. Bess and Halland live in a summer house in a small village by the fjord. They have been living together for a number of years, Bess having left her husband and daughter for Halland. As a result Bess’s daughter, Abby, no longer has anything to do with her, a matter which causes Bess ongoing pain. In the opening of the story Halland has been murdered, a fact which Bess discovers when the police knock on her door finding that Bess herself is accused of his murder. He has been shot. From the beginning Bess’s behaviour is strange and disjointed, she is forgetful and often absent, she loses hours at a time and cannot remember what she had done the night before. She appears to know virtually nothing about the man she has been living with – his desk has been cleared out, his laptop is missing and his phone – and her reaction to his death is both excessive and muted. She doesn’t seem fearful of having been accused, albeit temporarily, nor particularly interested in finding out what happened to him, who killed him or why. There is the suggestion of alcohol abuse on Bess’s part, but she is also a writer and prone, it seems, to writerly absences in which her consciousness disappears into a story. She seems to mix up memory, dream and fictional narrative. In this way she is, perhaps, a classic unreliable narrator but unreliable largely because whole chunks of information seem to be missing, not just about Halland but about Bess herself.
“I never found that the words people said to each other revealed to any great extent what happened between them. A single word never changed anything. A word was not an illumination that lodged itself in the brain and led a person to find a murderer. A word could never would someone fatally. Love couldn’t die on account of a mere word. One word would always be followed by another that compounded or expounded, repaired or derailed. Not even that second word would be decisive. Not in a good way, at any rate. There were times when I lost the inclination to speak. Silence felt simple and straightforward, but also indicated a lack. Silence acted on a person like a prison or a cramped cell.”
The narrative develops in an increasingly unsettling way. A pregnant young woman, Pernille, turns up at Bess’s home having heard about Halland’s death. Halland had been renting a room in her house, paying rent on which she relied, and had moved many of his papers there, even redirecting his post. Bess suspects, albeit only in passing, that Pernille may be carrying his child. On a night out (which is strange in itself) Bess bumps into another women who seems to have been attracted to, perhaps engaged in a relationship with, Halland. Yet she is not jealous of these women, neither does she seem to have a great deal of curiosity about them. In fact the village seems to be peopled by very strange people. There’s the doctor next door called Brandt who may have a more intimate relationship with Bess, and who she kisses for no apparent reason, who then disappears. His lodger seems familiar with Bess too, though she doesn’t seem to really know who he is. This sensation is compounded when Abby arrives, and she seems familiar with the lodger too. Even the detective, Funder, is mysteriously tanned and Bess can’t seem to stop herself from flirting with him. In fact her behaviour is often surprisingly and unexpectedly sexual, though at no point does she express any particular sexual desire.
The Murder of Halland is an unsettling book, not because of any graphic or disturbing depictions of murder, the book is largely clinical on that front, but because of the strange, often incomprehensible and erratic behaviour of Bess. Everything is disjointed, her reactions are strange and her behaviour even stranger. She is both incurious and yet investigative, she doesn’t seem affected by Halland’s death and then she is. The tumbling, unsettling narrative reminded me of a cooler-headed version of Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, or a less self-pitying / self-destructive Jean Rhys and it’s delivered in punchy chapters each with a quotation which the reader is advised to take notice of, which flows like a whirlpool one minute, a torrent the next and a bog a moment after. This makes it both a satisfying, because meaty, but unsatisfying, because unsettling, read. In fact it is a perfect 2 hour read, absorbing and irritating in equal measures but with enough to keep you turning the pages and wondering right to the end.
It’s been a small departure from my plan to read more deliberately, but like any sneaky treat it’s been a pleasurable one. I’m only sad that I don’t seem to have any more Peirene books lying around in my library, so I can sneak another quick read in sometime.