TV presenter Allis Hagtorn leaves her partner and her job to take voluntary exile in a remote house on an isolated fjord. But her new job as housekeeper and gardener is not all that it seems, and her silent, surly employer, 44-year-old Sigurd Bagge, is not the old man she expected. As they await the return of his wife from her travels, their silent, uneasy encounters develop into a chilling, obsessive relationship, and it becomes clear that atonement for past sins may not be enough.
Haunting, consuming and powerful, The Bird Tribunal is a taut, exquisitely written psychological thriller that builds to a shocking, dramatic crescendo that will leave you breathless.
The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn is quite possibly the most interesting and unique book I have read this year. I suspect that it is likely to stay that way as we progress through 2018. Why is this the case? Read on to find out.
TV presenter, Allis Hagtorn, walks away from her life to take a job in a remote part of Norway as a housekeeper and gardener to Sigurd Bagge. On arrival, Allis is surprised to discover that her employer is not the infirm, elderly man she expected.
The first thing that struck me about The Bird Tribunal was the style and the prose. None of the dialogue is punctuated and while this is not unique within literature – it is a style used by Cormac McCarthy – it is not a style I have come across in the past few years. This lack of punctuation could, potentially, cause difficulties for the reader, punctuation is, after all, used to guide the reader, but in The Bird Tribunal this is not the case. The quality of the writing and translation is such that it flows beautifully and, I felt, adds to the story rather than detracts from it. Of course, it got me mulling over why this style was decided upon and while I couldn’t answer that from the author and publisher’s point of view, it did make me consider the impact it had on me. I found myself focusing more on the words used rather than skimming over them quickly. As the story is told in first person narrative, purely from the perspective of Allis, the lack of dialogue punctuation made me feel as though Allis was directly addressing me. In some way, that I haven’t yet figured out and am still mulling over (if I do figure it out I will let you know), the lack of punctuation added to the overall feel and atmosphere of the book. The tension and claustrophobia that prevail throughout The Bird Tribunal is enhanced, in some way, by the style of the prose.
The Bird Tribunal is very much a character-driven plot and the tension is, in part, intertwined with the reader wanting to understand Bagge. As Allis is inexplicably drawn to the temperamental, secretive, distant Bagge the reader also finds themselves in the same position. Like a modern-day Heathcliff, Bagge is both a sympathetic and sinister character and I wondered which side of him would eventually prevail and what the final outcome would be. As my opinions of him and feelings towards him ebbed and flowed, Ravatn ensured that I was constantly taken off-guard. The subtlety that Ravatn uses throughout the book makes the behaviour of both characters all the more unnerving.
One of the things that I love about the literary classics is the use of symbolism and, having a thing for ravens, I adored the use of birds in The Bird Tribunal. For me, the birds were a harbinger of what’s to come and the loss of freedom rather than the freedom they usually represent. Combined with the use of nature and the time Allis spends in the garden and amongst wildlife, Ravatn effectively uses this device to increase the tautness that is felt within the relationship between the two characters. The setting is described and depicted wonderfully with Ravatn portraying all that is positive and negative about being in an isolated location. Other people will, undoubtedly, see things differently to me and I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on this. The Bird Tribunal is a book you want to discuss and would be a great novel to read as a reading group.
I’m aware that I am waffling a bit about this book and, as you can probably tell, I loved it. It is a book that is not to be rushed so you can take in every perfectly placed word. As with all Orenda books the translation by Rosie Hedger is flawless.
A psychological thriller in the purest sense, The Bird Tribunal is deeply unsettling and will resonate with you for days after reading it. It is, however, more than this and the outstanding prose and rich descriptions make it a beautiful piece of literary fiction. Outstanding!
Published on 1 September 2016 by Orenda Books, you can purchase a copy HERE.
My thanks go to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for the copy in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.