This book appeared on my radar as a tweet breezed past one day and I went off to investigate some more. You know how the synopses of some books just grab you more than others – within half an hour it was on my Kindle. I had never heard of the Norwegian author, Agnes Ravatn, before.
The Bird Tribunal is a book that burrows deep under your skin. You are pitched straight into the action – there’s no preamble, no backstory. It begins with thirty two year old Allis Hagtorn arriving at the remote house on an isolated Norwegian fjord, where she is to become a housekeeper and gardener for a man called Sigurd Bagge, after answering an advert. She sees him before he sees her – standing outside the house in the garden in a dark blue woollen jumper. She had thought he would be elderly but he is actually in his mid forties.
How he wants things to be run are very clear; she is to prepare his meals at regimented times, and he likes everything just so. He would like ‘as few interruptions as possible.’ He retires after he has eaten to his living quarters and barely speaks to her. She is strictly forbidden to go into his workroom. She becomes more intent on getting some reaction, some praise from him as none of her usual charms seem to work on him. She racks her brains for new recipes to cook to please him. We learn that he has a wife who is away but is expected back – when, we’re not sure – and we also gradually learn that Allis is also there to escape something – a very public shaming – but we’re not exactly sure what happened.
The pace of the book is a masterclass in rising tension – I simply had to find out why she was there in the first place and what had happened to make him like this. There are echoes of Rebecca and also Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester. The power balance between them shifts backwards and forwards and I found I was actually physically on edge myself during some of the most highly charged scenes. Apart from a shopkeeper, it is just played out between the two of them and the sense of claustrophobia and sexual tension between them is palpable. Themes of guilt and sin and atonement run throughout.
The writing throughout is beautiful – I loved all the descriptions of the fjord, the garden and the surroundings. It has been translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger.
For once, I had absolutely no idea how it would resolve itself. And the end, when it comes, is shatteringly brilliant.
The Bird Tribunal is published by Orenda Books.