Review: Last Rituals

Last Rituals
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir; translated from Icelandic by Bernard Scudder
HarperCollins, 2007
Originally published in Iceland by Veröld Publishing
9780061143373
Purchased new trade paperback.

Matthew beat Thóra to the photograph. He looked at it without a flicker of emotion, then handed it to her. “It’s quite disgusting,” he said as she took it.

“Disgusting” was not a strong enough word to describe what Thóra saw. The picture showed the young man whom Thóra knew from family photographs as Harald Guntlieb lying on the floor in a peculiar position she recognized from the photographs in the case file. But those had been so grainy and badly reproduced that they were almost fit to show on children’s television compared with what greeted her eyes now.

Last Rituals is the first in a series of mystery novels by Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, though she also has several children’s books under her belt. The lead character, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, is a lawyer and recently divorced mother of two hired by a wealthy German couple to investigate the gruesome murder of their son, who had been studying history at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík. Assisting her is Matthew Reich, the Guntliebs’ security officer and a former police detective in Germany. The case requires a delicate touch on two counts: first, because the police have already arrested a suspect and declared the crime solved; and secondly, because Harald Guntlieb’s body was horrifically mutilated – both before and after his death.

As she delves into the files provided by the police and Matthew, Thóra discovers that Harald was a rather strange young man. Despite the affluence of his upbringing, he had an unhappy childhood, having lost both an older brother and a younger sister to tragic circumstances. His enlistment in the German army was unusually brief, resulting in a medical discharge after he’d served seven months in Kosovo. As a college student, Harald developed an interest in autoerotic asphyxiation and, later, extreme body modification, to the point of having his tongue surgically forked.

Most importantly, Harald was obsessed with the Malleus Maleficarium, a 15th-century treatise on witchcraft, and whether or not a copy of the manuscript had made its way to Iceland prior to the influx of Lutheranism in the sixteenth century. Harald’s fixation on finding this rumored manuscript leads to his death. What Thóra must find out is who killed Harald, and what connection is there between his murder and the ghastly mutilations inflicted on his corpse.

Earlier this year, I resolved to try to read more books in translation. Although I didn’t deliberately choose to read Last Rituals in pursuit of this goal, the fact that it had been translated from Icelandic into English was an inducement to purchase it, and I purposely tried to “listen” for evidence of translation in my reading. One thing that caught my notice was how multilingual Icelanders must be to interact with the world beyond their island. Thóra, for example, speaks both German and English in addition to Icelandic, and often serves as a translator for or between other characters.

Knowing that Last Rituals was originally written in Icelandic – and thus its initial audience were Icelanders – had me paying closer attention to revelations about Icelandic society and culture, clues that might not have been so noticeable in a book originally written in English. I was interested to learn how Icelandic society differs from American society, but also where they are similar; the scenes between Thóra and her sixteen-year-old son in particular made me smile and nod in agreement. The passing comments on Iceland’s ecology and varying attitudes towards environmental responsibility were also illuminating.

On the other hand, I frequently encountered strange sentence constructions that I suspect were a result of the translation from Icelandic to English. While I’m not familiar with Icelandic syntax, I have studied enough European languages to know that sentence structure can vary noticeably from one to another. Several times while reading I would have to go back over a particular sentence and parse it out, to get what it was trying to say.

In addition, while I can’t say if this is a consequence of translation or Sigurðardóttir’s writing style (which in turn might be influenced by Icelandic literary norms), too often it seemed as if information was being told rather than shown. I’m not one to insist absolutely on “show, don’t tell,” but when it comes to mystery novels I prefer to uncover clues along with the protagonist, rather than have them parceled out to me in chunks of exposition, whether by narrative or in dialogue. The rather clunky, exposition-heavy dialogue between Thóra and Matthew in particular occluded any chemistry that should have existed between them; while I predicted they’d end up in bed together from their first scene together, there’s no development in their relationship, which gives it all the emotional resonance of a one-night stand. As before, though, I can’t tell if this is an issue of translation, Sigurðardóttir’s own writing style, or Icelandic literary norms.

Finally, I found the characterization of Harald Guntlieb weak and prone to cliché. Not only is he obsessed with the Malleus Maleficarium and the Reformation-era Inquisition’s pursuit of witches, he also undergoes extreme body modifications, has a perverse fascination with torture, and engages in out-of-the-norm sexual practices. Furthermore, towards the end of the book there is a revelation from his childhood that suggests not only a sourcepoint to his adult behavior and personality but also seems to suggest Harald was either intrinsically evil or profoundly mentally disturbed. The implicit link between Harald’s interests and being evil or crazy is thus an unfortunate one, in my opinion – while any one of them are out of the norm, they are not inherently wrong, and to imply that someone fascinated by the Inquisition, for example, is probably also crazy enough to engage in erotic asphyxiation is something I suspect might offend a few historians of the Late Middle Ages I know. To group all of these traits together – Harald’s obsession with the Malleus Maleficarium, his fascination with torture, his body mods, his sexual peccadilloes – was overkill, even insofar as they contributed to the mutilation of his corpse.

In conclusion, though I can’t recommend Last Rituals, I won’t argue against reading it either. Despite the clunky exposition and my issues with Harald’s characterization, I intend to read more of Sigurðardóttir’s work in the future. I’m interested to see if the concerns raised above (particularly those that could be related to translation or differences in literary values) persist in later novels, but more importantly, I’m fascinated by the glimpses of Icelandic society and culture in Last Rituals and hope to find more. The role of place and geography in fiction is of great interest to me, so I am drawn to any book that engages those themes. In addition, while I found Thóra a bit of a tough nut to crack in Last Rituals, I hope to get to know her better in subsequent novels.

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