Ragnar Jónasson’s latest mystery includes one of the best hooks I’ve read recently, although, curiously, it is not the book’s opening line: “Teacher wanted at the edge of the world.” Feeling adrift in her life in Reykjavik, Iceland, Una applies for and then accepts a teaching position to work with two students in the isolated village of Skálar which consists of about ten people. Upon arrival, Una rather quickly revises any idyllic notions she had of the smallest of small-town living. The repeated hauntings of a young girl singing a lullaby and playing the piano in the middle of the night within Una’s apartment only enhance the town’s grim winter atmosphere. Meanwhile, as Una tries to determine if these hauntings are real or simply nightmares, Jónasson interweaves her story with first-person accounts of a murder and wrongful conviction that initially has no relationship to the town of Skálar.
Photo Courtesy of Visit North Iceland
Jónasson is a skilled writer who manages to convey nuance without overwriting or slowing his narrative’s pace. I felt immersed in the story very quickly despite never having been anyplace like Skálar, or even Iceland for that matter. Una’s backstory and upbringing, although parsed out throughout the course of the novel, portrayed a complicated character with conflicting motivations and impulses that made her an interesting protagonist to follow. In addition to his characters, Jónasson’s setting is also unique among so many metropolitan mysteries complete with an experienced police detective. According to the author’s note accompanying my Net Galley copy, Skálar is a real place, although it was abandoned several decades before the 1980s setting of The Girl Who Died. (See the image above for a glimpse of the real-life Skálar.) The town provides an ideal location for a Gothic mystery with so many layers of history waiting to be excavated. In fact, the remote setting paired with the child ghost and Una’s teaching position was all reminiscent of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Ultimately, though, Jónasson fails to fully capitalize on this environment. Just as the novel’s various strands come together the book is over, and it’s a credit to the writing that I wanted The Girl Who Died to continue. Without revealing any plot points, I wished Jónasson had written further about the ramifications of the various mysteries he unravels. He sets up so ably the struggle to join a community but then doesn’t really explore the cost of belonging once a character like Una joins such an exclusive group as the town of Skálar.
Even with these criticisms, I look forward to reading more of Jónasson’s work, particularly the Hulda series which received excellent reviews. If you’re not yet ready to travel this summer, The Girl Who Died would be a wonderful escape into a completely different physical and psychological landscape.