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THE GIRL WHO DIED by Ragnar Jónasson: Book Review

Imagine yourself as a thirty-year-old woman:   you leave your teaching position in Reykjavik, travel 700 kilometers (435 miles) to a village at the most western point in Iceland where you know no one, become a teacher to two young girls, live in an attic that by tradition is haunted, and discover that there is only one person in the town who wants you there.  That is the story of Una in The Girl Who Died.

In a departure from his other stand-alone mysteries and his two police procedurals, Ragnar Jónasson brings us to Skalár, a remote village on the Langanes Peninsula. This is where Una (most Icelandic people are known by their first names only) is hoping for a better, happier life.  Scraping by on her salary as a teacher in the country’s capital, having no romantic attachments, few friends, and a loving but remote relationship with her mother, she decides to take the position advertised for a “teacher at the end of the world.”

The harrowing car trip to Skalár should have been a sufficient warning to Una that her time there would not be an easy one.  Indeed, when she arrives she finds that the only person in the village who welcomes her arrival is Salka, the woman who pushed for Una to be hired and who has offered Una a room in her home.  Salka is a single mother whose seven-year-old daughter Edda is one of the two pupils in the town; nine-year-old Kolbrún is the other.  Skalár’s other residents, with one exception, are either indifferent to her arrival or clearly unfriendly, and Una can’t understand why.

The exception is Thór, a single man living with Hjördís, the woman who owns the farm where he’s staying.  Although he’s friendly, he doesn’t tell Una what brought him to the village or where he came from, and her brief encounters with Hjördís seem to Una to verge on the hostile.  She doesn’t think the two are in a relationship, but what are they to each other?

Enforcing her loneliness is the dismal weather, the lack of pleasant company, and such amenities as a restaurant, television reception, or a library.  And Una is plagued by nightmares.  She keeps hearing a lullaby and seeing a young girl in a white dress, appearing first in her small room in the attic and then in different rooms of the house.  She finally approaches Salka with her concerns and hears the story of a young girl who lived in the house and died there in 1927, a story that does nothing to put her mind at ease.

As in all Jónasson’s novels, The Girl Who Died features a cast of fascinating characters, a riveting plot, and a sense of a country that is unique for its language and culture.  This is another outstanding Icelandic mystery.

Ragnar Jónasson is a best-selling author in Iceland and the winner of several international awards.  He is the co-founder of Iceland Noir, the Reykjavik international crime writing festival.  Beginning at the age of 17, Ragnar translated 14 Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic.  In addition to the English editions, his own books have been translated into French, Italian, Polish, and German.  Ragnar has a law degree, works as an investment banker in Reykjavik, and teaches law at Reykjavik University.

You can read more about him at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

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