Fiction — Kindle edition. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken. Peirene Press, 2012. Originally published 2009. 189 pgs. Library copy.
Bess awakens one morning in her home office to find that her husband, Halland, has left. His disappearance isn’t suspect; her normally leaves for work without waking her. But just as Bess prepares to step into the shower, the doorbell rings and the neighbor standing at her doorstep announces that he’s making a citizens arrest of her for the murder of Halland.
When I downloaded this novel to my Kindle, I was expecting to read a traditional crime novel complete with an investigator asking whodunit, a suspect, and a murder weapon. While Juul’s novel has those elements, the central focus of the novel isn’t who killed Halland, but rather how does Bess move through the stages of grief following the death of her husband.
Bess’ grappling of Halland’s death is complicated by the fact that she doesn’t — didn’t — love Halland. He may have been her husband (albeit by common law marriage after ten years of marriage), and she may have left her first husband for him. But being with him cost her a relationship with her family, especially with her now adult daughter Abby. And she admits that the two existed like ships passing in the night, that a wide gulf of secrets exists between them.
“He didn’t know that I had tried to leave him. He didn’t know that I cried because I had failed. And her certainly didn’t know that I missed my daughter. Yet the tenderness in his voice soothed me and I cherished the moment as though it had already turned into a fond memory. Had he not said what he said, I would never have thought of him as the love of my life. I never asked him if he understood my real feelings. I never asked him anything.” (pg. 30)
Secrets between man and wife are typical fare in a crime novel, and Halland posses some of the more tawdry and stereotypical ones within this genre. He has pays for the flat where a pregnant woman that Bess has never met lives. This woman describes herself as Halland’s “niece” since she was the foster daughter of Halland’s sister.
However, she refuses to discuss the parentage of her baby with Bess, leaving Bess to suspect the worst of her and Halland. She is also surprised Bess would act so negatively towards her after learning that Halland forwarded his mail to her address and hung a poster of his favorite movie, “The Return of Martin Guerre”, on the wall of the apartment he’s been paying for.
Very tawdry and stereotypical of this genre, no? Yet Juul elevates this novel above these stereotypes with a focus on the other aspects of Bess’ grieving process. There are expectations placed on Bess about how she should behaved and respond to Halland’s death: she should openly weep in the square, she should cancel her work appointments, and she should care who serves a pallbearer as his funeral.
“Why had I never cried? Crying is such an easy signal. It says, Grief! It’s that simple. Yet I never cried, not when they could see me. I want to tell the events as they happened, but I can’t.” (pg. 100)
Yet Bess chaffs against these suggestions because she either can’t — or, won’t — behave the way people think she should. And, as she asks herself, is that refusal a result of the grief or the relief that Halland’s death may mean she can undo her mistakes or the onset of insanity?
Of course, undoing a mistake after ten years is nearly impossible. Abby, at first, refuses to talk to her mother, but arrives on her doorstep after news of Halland’s murder has been picked up by the national press. Neither woman knows how to handle their fractured relationship, and the scene where Bess asks Abby to assess her as a mother and a person after ten years was my favorite aspect of Juul’s story.
“Do you recognize me? Do I talk like your mother did when you were a child? Am I more human now, or still a monster? Or the other way round? What am I? Can you tell me who I am?” (pg. 113)
This story may not have been the Scandinavian murder mystery I was expecting, but it still exceeded the (erroneous) expectations I had for it when I started reading. Juul’s character study — of a character I didn’t even really like! — is a fascinating and refreshing break from the formula of crime novels. If any of Juul’s other novels were available in English, I’d eagerly snap them up.
Originally published as ‘Mordet på Halland’, Juul’s novel won Denmark’s most important literary prize, Danske Banks Litteraturpris, in 2009 and was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013.