Allis Hagtorn has done something of which she is profoundly ashamed. She seeks anonymity and a refuge where she can come to terms with her behavior and her future. She finds employment in a remote house on a Norwegian fjord. Here she will be a housekeeper/cook/gardener to Sigurd Bagge, the solitary man who calls this house home.
Her previous employment as a television presenter has not prepared her for the hard physical labor she is expected to perform for Sigurd Bagge – or for the emotional minefield his presence seems to generate. He is surly, taciturn, moody, and secretive. He expects her to eat alone, after he has finished. There are locked rooms in the house which she is not to enter. He says the garden was once his wife’s domain, now she is gone (we know not where) and it has fallen into an overgrown chaos.
“Something wasn’t right about this place”There is no car. Allis is expected to cycle in to the nearest shop to get the provisions she needs for his meals. There is no music, no television, no internet.
As the frigid spring turns to summer on the fjord, Allis and Bagge remain remote from each other – even though they do occasionally share a glass of wine from the cottage’s seemingly endless supply in the cellar. They seem incapable of looking each other in the eye. They are both married with absent spouses.
The predictable duties over several weeks makes Allis feel transformed. She feels as though she has shed her old life like a snake sheds its skin. The hard manual work seems to have been her salvation.
“…difficult circumstances were good starting points for life changes, great or small.”
They both harbor secrets that seem to weigh upon them so much that they are barely able to stand. The house, in this isolated and beautiful spot, is fraught with tension.
“I was too happy to cry and too sad to smile.
I didn’t know what it was, I longed to feel light.”
At times Allis is afraid of Sigurd. At other times he makes her feel safe… It has been a long time since she has spoken to her parents or anyone from her former life. She feels isolated – but she cannot imagine being anywhere else, doing anything else.
To say this novel is atmospheric would be an understatement. At times the house is so quiet that you can imagine Allis hearing her own heartbeat above all else. The characterization is wonderful. The reader learns just enough about the two protagonists to want to know more – thus maintaining a delicious tension and at the same time, a feeling of foreboding.
When the meaning behind the title and the cover art are divulged, the reader is rendered speechless. A novel of guilt, atonement, and what the lack of trust can do to a relationship. A psychological thriller? Yes. A crime thriller? You be the judge.
I think “The bird tribunal” will be on my ‘best of 2017’ list. Highly recommended!
This book was translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger.
Thanks to Orenda Books for providing me with a complimentary digital copy of this book in consideration of my review.
From Orenda Books:
Agnes Ravatn (b. 1983) is an author and columnist. She made her literary début with the novel Week 53 (Veke 53) in 2007. Since then she has written three critically acclaimed and award-winning essay collections: Standing still (Stillstand), 2011, Popular reading (Folkelesnad), 2011, and Operation self-discipline (Operasjon sjøldisiplin), 2014. In these works Ravatn shows her unique, witty voice and sharp eye for human fallibility. Her second novel, The Bird Tribunal (Fugletribuanlet), 2013, is a strange and captivating story about shame, guilt and atonement. Ravatn received The cultural radio P2’s listener’s prize for this novel, a popular and important prize in Norway.