Monday, 19 May 2014

Yrsa Sigurðadóttir. The Silence of the Sea (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014)

On a windy night luxury yacht Lady K crashes into the harbour wall at Reykjavík. There is no one on board; all seven people who boarded the yacht in Lisbon have vanished. 

The original title Brakið (published in 2011) is snappier and more imaginative than the mundane English The Silence of the Sea. Brakið has both the meanings of ‘wrecked’ as in the case of the yacht at the centre of the narrative, and of ‘crashed’ or ‘crunched’ as in the case of the Icelandic economy.
The Silence of the SeaThe setting of the novel is in the aftermath of the financial disaster that struck the overextended Icelandic banking system at the end of the noughties. There is much talk about the uneven distribution of money (p35, 72), of making and losing fortunes (pp47, 62, 75, 106, 197, 327) and money trouble generally (pp69, 196, 203) The lives of all the characters are coloured by this experience and they are preoccupied with financial success. Debt, greed and desire to keep up with the Joneses are all present as motives.  The stricken yacht, a symbol of unbridled consumption, is in the very middle of it:

“… the incident was linked to the resolution committee appointed to wind up the affairs of one of Iceland’s failed banks. When the luxury yacht’s owner proved unable to pay back the bank loan with which he had purchased it, the committee had repossessed the vessel. As a result the yacht had been on its way from the Continent to Iceland, to be advertised for sale …” (pp13-14

When one of the four-man crew arranged for the yacht has to pull out, Ægir volunteers to take his place. He is an employee of the resolution committee sent to Lisbon to organize the paperwork for the yacht. He has brought along his wife Lára and eight-year old twin daughters Arna and Bylgja. Together they make up the group of people who vanish so mysteriously. Ægir, too, desires wealth, until the events on the yacht convince him otherwise: “What had he been dreaming of to think they needed money for their life to be perfect?” (p386). By then, it is too late.

Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, Sigurðadóttir’s lawyer heroine familiar from her earlier crime novels, is hired by Ægir’s parents to prepare a life insurance claim. She has to find evidence that Ægir and Lára are both innocent and dead.

The Silence of the Sea is divided into (almost alternating) chapters that describe Thóra’s investigation in Reykjavík and the events on the yacht sailing towards Iceland. The opening of chapter two in Lisbon is a mild surprise: we see Ægir with his family “wandering the steep narrow lanes of the old city centre.” (p22) Yet we know already that these people will board Lady K and vanish into thin air. Instead of a classic detective story focused on events in the past, Sigurðadóttir gives us two parallel timelines: one retrospective (Thóra’s) and one ‘real time’ (Ægir’s). This is a significant technical achievement in the book.

Sigurðadóttir succeeds in keeping her story on an even keel, so that both strands of the narrative remain interesting. It would be very easy for the reader to lose her patience with Thóra’s investigation; after all, to know what really happened you only need to read the chapters that take place on the yacht.

Sigurðadóttir places every clue and every revelation in tandem. Thóra’s discoveries are illustrated by scenes on the yacht; the events on board are explained and given context by Thóra’s progressing investigation. In this way, the two parallel timelines complement each other and form a unified whole. Even at the end, neither the party on board or on land knows the whole truth.

Sigurðadóttir’s plotting and structuring of the novel are effective, the writing is not very good. There is an amount of superfluous padding in the novel, and it is in places a heavy read. The incident of the broken photocopier (pp8-9) rumbling on in the background is unnecessary and not very amusing. The loss of the photocopier does not, as far as I could see, affect the course of the plot in any way (no documents are delayed or lost, no unexpected encounters are created because of it. If I am wrong, please, let me know).

There is unnecessary detail about Thóra’s family life (pp235-8). It is hard to see what these scenes, like the ones describing how none of the family can cook (pp67-69) or Thóra taking her grandson to the nursery (pp194-5), contribute to the narrative. They are a cumbersome way to show Thóra’s character as a mother.  There is a subtle link between Thóra’s daughter drawing elephants on her homework (p70) and the twins on the yacht colouring a picture of an elephant in their colouring book (p49).

Similarly there is too much explanation in the narrative. Thóra is a lawyer, so we can expect her to deal in legal arguments. However, when she searches on the net for information about ghost ships and people missing at sea (pp97-98), or when she explains legal details to grieving grandparents (pp 127-9, 132-135, 290), it reads like Sigurðadóttir is giving us her research raw. It is good she has done her research, but it should in inform the narrative, instead of form the narrative.

There is much lying in the story, particularly telling white lies to children in order to shield them from the harsh truth: “There’s nothing wrong, everything’s going to be fine. …thus yacht is unsinkable…” (p318) “It’ll be all right.” (p339). In the end, Ægir “regretted telling the girls what they wanted to hear rather than what they needed to know. If they were to come through this alive, they would have to be aware of the danger.” (pp383-4) 

People also lie to themselves to make things appear better, to postpone the inevitable. Begga talks about “a small misunderstanding over the property tax” (p111), “a spot of bother” with money “Only temporary, mind.” (p375) She tries to convince herself of her daughter Karitas’s devotion coming up with excuses for her. Karitas’s plan is simply to sell the house where Begga lives: “You’ll just have to fend for yourself.” (p375).

Telling stories to make things appear the way you would like them to be, extends from the immediate plot to the pervading theme of the Icelandic economic crash – like Begga, were the Icelandic people telling themselves that their nation is a financial superpower? And, since we are reading fiction, is Sigurðadóttir telling us what we want to hear?

The Silence of the Sea is not a neat story where justice is done. The crime may be solved, but the ramifications of the crime are horrendous. What was supposed to be a simple, controlled transaction, spirals out of control and results in unexpected, terrible consequences.

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