Book review: The Bird Tribunal, by Agnes Ravatn

18 01 2017

Agnes Ravatn is a prize-winning Norwegian journalist, columnist, and author. She’s published several non-fiction titles, including three collections of essays, and two novels.

thebirdtribunal

The Bird Tribunal (Fugletribunalet, 2013, translated by Rosie Hedger) is Ravatn’s second short novel. So far as I can establish, it’s the first of Ravatn’s work to have seen English translation, in which form it has gained an English PEN Award; in its native Norwegian, it has received the NRK P2 Listener’s Novel Prize and the Youth Critic’s Award; it’s also seen adaptation as a stage play and appears to be in film production.

Allis Hagtorn, a woman wracked by self-doubt, has fled her partner and her public career under a substantial cloud. She winds up as housekeeper and gardener for Sigurd Bagge, a taciturn and almost irredemiably difficult man twelve years her senior, who lives alone, awaiting his wife’s return, in an isolated house at the tip of fjord. The interaction between the two starts as something purely hierarchical—he is her employer, almost her owner—but subtly shifts with time as details of the pair’s pasts awkwardly emerge from their shared silence. The book is built on undercurrents, and there’s an ever-present sense of cloaked menace beneath the mostly-unexceptional, closely-observed pattern of their days, with Bagge’s wife Nor a continually present absence in their midst. It’s a deft, remarkably quiet book, and distinctly unsettling.

With such a sparse palette—Allis with her neuroses and her deep-ingrained guilt, Bagge with his fiery, sullen, unexplained rigidity, interacting within the confines of the house, the garden, or down at the jetty—it would be easy for the story to lose its hold on the reader. But Ravatn maintains the tension, all the while describing some minutely distinct seasonal shift, or reporting some on-the-face-of-it bland and unexceptional dialogue. The writing is lyrical, wonderful, precisely chiselled. But it’s what is not said (until the end, so well set up) that underpins this deeply impressive story.

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