Novel Readings

“Links with the Past”: Arnaldur Indriðason, Silence of the Grave

He no longer heard any tales, and they became lost to him. All his people were gone, forgotten and buried in deserted rural areas. He, in turn, drifted through a city that he had no business being in. Knew that he was not the urban type. Could not really tell what he was. But he never lost his yearning for a different life, felt rootless and uncomfortable, and sensed how his last links with the past evaporated when his mother died.

I finished my second Arnaldur Indriðason novel, Silence of the Grave, last night. The Girl on the Train  is supposedly a “page-turner” but I read Silence of the Grave with much more rapt attention: it’s smarter, darker, and infinitely more gripping. It was almost too dark: there’s always something uncomfortable about being entertained by suffering, and at the center of Silence of the Grave is a tragic account of an abusive relationship in which the brutal physical violence is almost less harrowing than what the victim’s daughter calls the “soul murder” it causes. “She turned out to be like these bushes,” the daughter reflects about her mother:

They’re particularly hardy, they withstand all kinds of weather and the harshest winters, but they’re always green and beautiful again in the summer, and the berries they produce are just as red and juicy as if nothing had ever happened. As if winter had ever come.

The hope that things will turn green and flower and bear fruit again is hard to sustain in this relentlessly grim novel, not only through the history of this tortured family and its eventual, inevitable, cataclysm but through the time we spend with Inspector Erlendur and his family in the present. I noted that in Jar City I didn’t get much sense of Erlendur as a character. Here Indriðason made up for that, most notably through a bleak monologue delivered by Erlendur to his comatose daughter. This speech reveals in both words and tone much more about him, especially how he came to be the man he is, in the place he now has in the world. (There’s also a painful scene with his ex-wife that made Wallander’s family life seem positively tranquil.) The novel’s various elements all illuminate the ways in which families cause each other pain: the case under investigation may be an extreme, but the question the beaten wife asks applies to all of them: “What makes people like that?”

Inevitably, Erlendur’s work forces him to confront the causes as well as the consequences of people’s capacity for cruelty. That hardly makes for light reading, but I’m impressed that Indriðason presents this difficult material without turning us into voyeurs — which was my experience of reading The Girl on the Train, that it stimulated a kind of tasteless curiosity about how bad things were or might get. There’s nothing prurient about Silence of the Grave. There’s nothing slick or glamorous about its violence or its story, either. Indriðason lets it all be ugly, which is horrible but also true. I might be reluctant to read another of his books, though, if he hadn’t ended this one with just a hint of hope.