The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn translated by Rosie Hedger
TV presenter Allis Hagtorn leaves her partner and her job to take voluntary exile in a remote house on an isolated fjord. But her new job as housekeeper and gardener is not all that it seems, and her silent, surly employer, 44-year-old Sigurd Bagge, is not the old man she expected. As they await the return of his wife from her travels, their silent, uneasy encounters develop into a chilling, obsessive relationship, and it becomes clear that atonement for past sins may not be enough.
Allis Hagtorn is running away from her life. She has publicly disgraced herself in a way that made headlines in the media. She needs to get away and leave her life behind. So she answers an ad for a housekeeper based in a house located on an isolated fjord.
Her tasks are simple; she must look after the wild garden and cook simple meals for her employer, Sigurd Bagge. He is a taciturn man who tells her his wife is away. He wants no personal contact with her. She is to cook his meals but take her own after he has eaten and he wants no conversation, leaving her to decide what she will work on and what to cook.
This book which is remarkable for its very real sense of impending doom, but accompanied by a stillness which permeates the pages, making the feeling that something bad is going to happen all the worse because of the long, slow deliberate pace that the book takes. This is exquisite, intelligent writing. The landscape, too, plays its part. Looming, isolating, chilling. When Allis goes into the forest the secrets that lie there are waiting to reveal themselves, if only she could understand the symbols that it offers her.
The entire book concentrates on the two protagonists, with only an occasional sniping comment from the owner of the only local shop who favours Allis with her malevolent tongue on the few occasions she drops in. This leaves the novel free to concentrate entirely on the relationship between Allis and Sigurd and to build the sense of isolation, claustrophobia and dread that permeate the book.
Allis is not a natural gardener, nor an accomplished cook, but she wants to make the job work. Sigurd Bagge is moody and brusque, disappearing into his work shed every day and emerging only to take his meals in silence, but as Allis throws herself into learning how to do her job, she becomes focussed, and almost obsessed on pleasing him with the results of her labours.
Her efforts slowly start to bear fruit and the two begin to interact, albeit slowly. When Allis tells him the story of Bagge – a story which tellingly, is the first presage of Ragnarok, the downfall and death not just of the Norse Gods, but of their very cosmos. Bagge responds with his own telling of the story of the Bird Tribunal, itself a dark and menacing story that can bode no good.
When Allis finds a blue cookery book and begins to cook meals from it, she finds that Bagge responds to the smells and tastes that she provides him with until he invites her, finally, to share his table and eat with him. This gesture offers Allis a return of some of the self-esteem she has lost and brings for the first time since she arrived in the fjord, warmth to her heart. The fact that the cookbook can only belong to his wife is something that Allis tries to ignore.
As they begin a relationship Allis finds that Bagge is a complex character who both attracts and scares her; she needs his approbation and wants to find his vulnerability endearing. When she learns more about him, and his wife and the secrets he has been hiding, she still allows him to dictate the terms of their relationship.
As the novel reaches its crescendo, the careful structure and dark imagery that have suffused the book now take centre stage and the denouement is dark, swift and sudden.
The Bird Tribunal is a contemporary Gothic novel, with a nod to works such as The Castle of Wolfenbach and Romance of the Forest. For Allis, the fjord and the forest are a place of safety, both mysterious and fantastic, where she can hide away and yet are also places of terror where it is possible to imagine superstitious rituals taking place.
Utilising Norse mythology to create a foretelling of destruction, the imagery paints a picture of a fractured world in which nothing is quite what it seems and each new piece of information serves to add a black brushstroke to the already dark painting that is The Bird Tribunal.
I loved this story. The crisp, spare writing; the dark and haunting imagery; all make for an utterly compelling read. The painful exploration of a fragile ego in thrall to an egoist is one which has its own dark fascination but when coupled with the Nordic element feels suffused with the land and its mythological history.
Ravatn is clearly a writer of distinction and one to watch – with a brilliant translation by Rosie Hedger. I urge you to read it.
The Bird Tribunal was published by Orenda Books on 1st September 2016