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I Remember You, by Yrsa Sigurđardóttir, translated by Philip Roughton


It's not often that the newspaper coverage of books leaps off review sections (such as the one you're reading now) to the body of the paper, but the phenomenon certainly happened – with a vengeance – for Yrsa Sigurđardóttir’s new novel in her native Iceland.

Some might argue that it was for all the wrong reasons, but the publicity hardly hurt the sales of the book. Leaving aside the literary merits of I Remember You, residents of Iceland were thoroughly terrified by the book – but, ironically, for its jacket, featuring a pair of intensely staring eyes that (for some reason) deeply disturbed -- and even obsessed -- many Icelanders, and occasioned a slew of complaints.

The author’s British publishers have (wisely? unwisely?) forestalled such hysteria in this country by giving the book an unexciting, generically creepy cover image, so nothing can get between us and the writing. In the event, the packaging is immaterial: the book is genuinely bone chilling, and proves that as well as being the Queen of Icelandic crime fiction, Sigurđardóttir is a generator of fear quite as adroit as such writers as Stephen King. (At a recent crime fiction festival, she said gleefully ‘I really love making people’s flesh creep!’)

In I Remember You, Sigurđardóttir draws on the heritage of Icelandic literature, channelling ancient folk tales and ghost stories into a vision of modern Icelandic society, with the country’s financial upheavals indirectly feeding the novel’s dark strategies. With this book (which won this year's Icelandic Crime League Award), Sigurđardóttir has given a holiday to her usual protagonist, lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdottir, and has introduced some new characters.

Three savvy young city individuals set themselves the task of restoring a decrepit building in the western fjords of Iceland. But they are to find that their trip to this secluded setting is to have terrifying consequences, as a sinister supernatural entity makes its presence felt. At the same time, on the other side of the fjord, a psychiatrist is investigating an unexplained suicide, somehow linked to his own son, who vanished some years earlier. Needless to say, these two plot strands -- some very nasty things happen in both of them – are brought together in a satisfyingly unsettling manner. If the three luckless city types here lack the piquant individual character of the doughty Thóra, that hardly matters – the point here, frankly, is the skilful orchestration of fear in the reader, and that task is carried off with real panache. Unsurprisingly, film rights have been speedily snapped up.

Sigurđardóttir said that her next book will feature her usual heroine once again, but she has hinted that her taste for horror is not slaked – and more hair-raising literature is on the cards for her. If that's so, such writers as Britain’s Susan Hill (who similarly alternates crime fiction and supernatural frissons) had better look to their laurels. With or without controversial book jackets, Ms Sigurđardóttir is clearly relishing the business of scaring our collective pants off.