Translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger, ‘The Bird Tribunal’ by Agnes Ravatn tells the story of Allis Hagtorn, a former TV presenter who goes into self-imposed exile from her home, job and partner after she is involved in a scandal at work. She finds a new job as a housekeeper and gardener for a man called Sigurd Bagge in the middle of nowhere despite having no real experience in that type of role. Before arriving at his isolated house by the Norwegian fjords, she expects to be caring for an elderly man but discovers on arrival that Sigurd is in his forties and is not much older than her, simply requiring some extra help in the house and garden while his wife is away. Sigurd rarely talks to Allis and has violent mood swings but she finds herself being increasingly drawn to him.
The potential return of Sigurd’s wife Nor, the barbed comments from the local shopkeeper, dark elements of Norse mythology and the stark landscape of the Norwegian fjords all contribute towards the unsettling atmosphere. Allis’s behaviour becomes more and more bizarre and obsessive as she tries to ascertain whether Sigurd finds her attractive or repulsive. She constantly tries to find ways to get his attention often coming across as much younger than she actually is and seems to find the transition from being in the public eye to living in a remote location very difficult despite the exile being her choice.
Drawing comparisons with ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte and ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier, the narrative tension is brilliantly controlled underneath the mundane domesticity of Allis and Sigurd’s day-to-day lives until the dramatic climax at the very end. Their relationship becomes something of a power struggle where it is never quite clear who has the upper hand or who is manipulating who. The ambiguous character development is highly effective with Ravatn leaving the reader to form their own interpretation of events and Hedger shows real skill in her translation by ensuring that this uneasy tone is replicated in the English version of the text.
‘The Bird Tribunal’ is an intensely chilling read which packs a real punch in less than 200 pages. It has been billed as a psychological suspense thriller but I think it is very original take on what can sometimes be a cliché-ridden genre. ‘The Bird Tribunal’ also has strong literary credentials having already won a PEN Translates award and I hope it is a contender for next year’s Man Booker International Prize. It is Ravatn’s first book to be translated into English and I hope more of her work appears soon.