My November reading challenge was to read books set in Northern or Eastern Europe, and one that was high on my list was The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson. This nordic noir, set in a remote village in Iceland in the 1980s, combines a haunting ghost story with a realistic thriller mystery. It was the perfect vibe going into the chillier months.
Una is a teacher who’s a bit lost in life. When she sees an add for a teaching position “at the edge of the world,” it seems like the escape she may need. Una ends up in the remote village of Skálar, population just 10, where she will teach two girls. Apart from the kind mother and daughter she’s staying with in Skálar, most of the village’s inhabitants are rather unwelcoming and even hostile. The weather is equally harsh, and given how isolated the village is, Una feels all alone. To add to her troubles, her home seems to be haunted by a little girl’s ghost, and there may be a sordid mystery surrounding the people of Skálar. Una might be in danger as the different pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place.
There’s something about Iceland that I find intriguing. It’s near the top of my list of travel destinations, but until I’m able to visit, I have to content myself with books set there. The Girl Who Died takes us to a remote village on the northeastern edge of country, building slowly as a subtle haunting and the creeping sense that something’s wrong here takes hold. It’s a muted yet atmospheric mystery. I found it most comparable to a book I read a few years ago, The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea. Although that one takes place 300 years earlier, both books feature an isolated setting, locals reluctant to talk about anything, and the combination of supernatural hauntings with a more real life danger.
Ragnar Jónasson does a wonderful job of building the atmosphere. It’s present in the quiet home where Una is living, in her days spent alone drinking wine, in the haunting dreams that plague her and the ghostly melody she hears playing at night. There are rumors of a ghost, one that Una herself may be seeing, but what really happened to that little girl who died all those years ago? Una struggles to find answers about the sordid past and current haunting.
When Una leaves the house, things aren’t any better. Her neighbors are evasive, secretive, and dismissive at best. Sometimes, they’re threatening. She has only two allies: a young man who could be a love interest if he wasn’t so mercurial, and the woman who owns the home where Una is staying. The hostility of Skálar’s inhabitants adds to the isolated and disquieting nature of the novel. And indeed, far away from any city, Una is cut off from the world in a potentially dangerous way.
The Girl Who Died is divided into numerous short chapters, making for a quick read. It also jumps back in time to offer glimpses of another story of murder and setup, though for most of the novel, it’s unclear how that relates to what Una is facing in Skálar in 1985. Even with these narrative techniques that make for a page-turner, the book is rather slow-paced in the first half, building up atmosphere and characterization more than propelling the plot forward. It’s not until nearly halfway through that a major event takes place. From there, dangers and clues start to accumulate, making the novel more engaging. It still doesn’t reach the breakneck pace of other thrillers, though. Instead, it’s more a understated yet suffocating feeling until the final reveal.
There’s a lot I enjoyed about The Girl Who Died. I love anything with a ghost story, and the haunting, isolated ambiance worked well for me. On the other hand, a few things fell flat. Una is an odd character in some ways. Her excessive drinking, in another book, may have painted her as an unreliable narrator; here, though, it seems more a source for others to judge her. Her reactions to certain interactions and events, including the final reveal, don’t always ring true for me. The dual timeline was engaging — with some interesting themes that arose in the earlier timeline — though I’m not sure how satisfying it is when it all comes together at the end.
Overall, The Girl Who Died is an engrossing novel that can be read quickly. The mood and setting are perfect, even if certain elements could have been built out a bit more. This was my first book by Ragnar Jónasson, and I look forward to reading more from him.
Get the Book
You can buy The Girl Who Died here – it’s available as a hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook.
|The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson|
|Genre||Mystery; Thriller; Nordic Noir|
|Number of Pages||300|
|Format I Read||Paperback|
|Original Publication Date||November 5, 2018 (Iceland); May 4, 2021 (United States)|
From Ragnar Jónasson, the award-winning author of the international bestselling Ari Thór series, The Girl Who Died is a standalone thriller about a young woman seeking a new start in a secluded village where a small community is desperate to protect its secrets.
Teacher Wanted At the Edge of the World
Una wants nothing more than to teach, but she has been unable to secure steady employment in Reykjavík. Her savings are depleted, her love life is nonexistent, and she cannot face another winter staring at the four walls of her shabby apartment. Celebrating Christmas and ringing in 1986 in the remote fishing hamlet of Skálar seems like a small price to pay for a chance to earn some teaching credentials and get her life back on track.
But Skálar isn’t just one of Iceland’s most isolated villages, it is home to just ten people. Una’s only students are two girls aged seven and nine. Teaching them only occupies so many hours in a day and the few adults she interacts with are civil but distant. She only seems to connect with Thór, a man she shares an attraction with but who is determined to keep her at arm’s length.
As darkness descends throughout the bleak winter, Una finds herself more often than not in her rented attic space—the site of a local legendary haunting—drinking her loneliness away. She is plagued by nightmares of a little girl in a white dress singing a lullaby. And when a sudden tragedy echoes an event long buried in Skálar’s past, the villagers become even more guarded, leaving a suspicious Una seeking to uncover a shocking truth that’s been kept secret for generations.
About the Author
Credit: Bill Waters
Ragnar Jónasson is author of the award winning and international bestselling Dark Iceland series.
His debut Snowblind, first in the Dark Iceland series, went to number one in the Amazon Kindle charts shortly after publication. The book was also a no. 1 Amazon Kindle bestseller in Australia. Snowblind has been a paperback bestseller in France.
Nightblind won the Dead Good Reader Award 2016 for Most Captivating Crime in Translation.
Snowblind was called a “classically crafted whodunit” by THE NEW YORK TIMES, and it was selected by The Independent as one of the best crime novels of 2015 in the UK.
Rights to the Dark Iceland series have been sold to UK, USA, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Australia, Poland, Turkey, South Korea, Japan, Morocco, Portugal, Croatia, Armenia and Iceland.
Ragnar was born in Reykjavík, Iceland, where he works as a writer and a lawyer. He also teaches copyright law at Reykjavík University and has previously worked on radio and television, including as a TV-news reporter for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service.
He is also the co-founder of the Reykjavík international crime writing festival Iceland Noir.
From the age of 17, Ragnar translated 14 Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic.
Ragnar has also had short stories published internationally, including in the distinguished Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the US, the first stories by an Icelandic author in that magazine.
He has appeared on festival panels worldwide, and lives in Reykjavík.
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