The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund

thecrowgirlbanner.jpg“Don’t take my hate away. It’s the only thing I’ve got.”

This novel is like a cold shock of ice to the psyche.  A deeply complex and disturbing psychological thriller not recommended for the faint of heart. It starts with the gruesome discovery of a young boy’s mummified body and ultimately unravels as a cruel web of sadism and depravity.

Don’t get me wrong – this is definitely one of the best crime thrillers I’ve read this year. The writing is excellent. It was originally published as a trilogy written under a pseudonym by Swedish duo Jerker Erikson and Hakan Sundquist. And the hefty 750-page translation by Neil Smith doesn’t miss a beat. It echoes the skilful plotting of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and reminded me why I am such a fan of the Scandi-crime genre.

Its protagonists are superbly drawn. At the helm is superintendent detective Jeanette Kihlberg, torn between her career and family, already familiar with the murkiest of humankind, and now pulled into an increasingly unsettling case of sadistic murders and depravity. Her path crosses with the intriguing Sofia Zetterlund, a psychologist dealing with child abuse cases, who is soon revealed to have disquieting secrets of her own.  The novel’s darker edges are haunted by Victoria Bergman, by far the most compelling of its characters; her world is lurid and conjures our worst nightmares.

The plot is taut and unrelenting; it’s hardly ever what it seems and even in its final chapters it reveals ever more grisly details. And while the book is never gratuitous in its themes of child abuse, paedophilia and psychological disorders, it does inflict a sour aftertaste and a desire to leave the light on at bedtime. What it implies is often more horrific than what is written on the page. This is a book that plays with your perception and deceives as frequently as it terrifies. Heart-stopping stuff.

But the subject matter and frequent plot twists do require a resilient reader. After spending just under a month in the den of The Crow Girl, I myself am in need of sunnier reading material. By the end of it, I felt just as tense and emotionally drained as I imagined its characters feeling throughout.

An intense portrait of the human psyche gone terribly wrong.

And one to read with caution.

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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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They said I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.

1829, Iceland. Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been condemned to death as an accomplice in the brutal murder of Natan Ketilsson and his house guest, Pétur Jónsson. She will become the last woman executed in Iceland. In this vivid Scandinavian crime novel, based on a true story, Hannah Kent imagines Agnes’ final months.

Kent’s Agnes is a remarkable character. To society she is but a murderess, a landless peasant, victim to poverty and fated to a cruel end – her intelligence is suspicious, she’s fallen prey to desire and keen jealousy, and her actions have labelled her a monster. The family of Kornsà, who grudgingly takes her in while she awaits sentencing, is intolerant of her and horrified by her crime. She’s a thing made for gossip and distrust. But gradually, they find themselves considering the humanity of the condemned woman. There is a grace about Agnes, she’s seen both the brutality and tenderness of life and in her last months she chooses to embrace everyday routine, a sense of normalcy, even as the executioner sharpens his blade.

But Agnes knows how her story will end.

So does the assistant reverend Tóti. Assigned with absolving Agnes of her sins, he feels daunted by his task and intrigued by his charge. His approach is sympathetic, tinged with self-doubt and instead of staunch disapproval, he offers a willing ear. As the execution date draws near, Agnes is gently coaxed to divulge the events surrounding the night of Natan Ketilsson’s murder – Natan, the complex and intriguing eccentric with a talent for healing illness, be it as a gifted herbalist or, some say, by dabbling in sorcery. His reputation is marked with superstition and scandal, and he is both revered and detested for his arrogance and debauchery.

Burial Rites unfolds slowly, drawing you in page after page as it reveals its secrets. Every time I set it aside and went about my day, I felt compelled to pick it up again and uncover more of this fascinating story. Darkly poetic and tragic, this debut novel is precisely as Kent refers to it in her Author’s Note – a dark love letter to Iceland.


If you’d like to learn more about the characters and setting of this exquisite novel, take a peek at author Hannah Kent’s essay Hunches and the Historical Novel at Kill Your Darlings, and Burial Rites: a photo essay from Iceland at Picador.