Last year Peirene Press made it on to the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long-list with Next World Novella, the story of a man waking to find his wife dead and the events which follow as he begins to see their relationship in a new light. This year they are represented by Pia Juul’s The Murder of Halland in which a woman wakes to discover her partner (they’re not married in this case) has been shot. Not only must she come to terms with his death but also re-evaluate their relationship as she discovers aspects of his life that she didn’t know about.
Of course the novels are in other ways quite different. The Murder of Halland is written as an anti-detective story (you can see why this might be attractive to a Scandinavian author). Juul highlights the difference when the widowed narrator, Bess, relaxes by watching a television detective series:
“First a murder, nothing too bestial. Then a police inspector. Insights into his or her personal problems, perhaps. Details about the victim. Puzzles and anomalies. Lines of investigation. Clues. Detours. Breakthrough. Case solved. Nothing like real life.”
This is only one of a number of unusual actions which Bess takes after Halland’s death. She goes to a night club and gets drunk, kisses a neighbour, and almost misses his funeral. No-one, in fact, acts as expected. Bess’ bitter ex-husband, the man she left after a chance encounter with Halland, turns up to tell her he misses her; her daughter, who has refused to see her since the divorce, appears without the appropriately dramatic scene of reconciliation or confrontation.
Halland, too, turns out to not be all that he seemed to Bess. She discovers a room rented in the apartment of a young pregnant woman who claims to be a relative. A giant poster of The Return of Martin Guerre – which would scream clue in any normal mystery – is rolled up and put away. The money he put in her account before his death is never explained. The puzzle is never solved: as the police seem to head in one direction, the ending points ambiguously in another.
Working against genre and character expectations, Juul instead tells a story which rings true. Like most people after a life-changing experience, Bess’ life doesn’t change. “I’m not in the mood for soul-searching,” she says. She claims not to want to know the results of the police investigation until they are certain, but, in fact, admits she “preferred not to know anything at all.” Even the prose (which, of course, reflects Bess’ character) is as flat as real life.
As we have come to expect from Peirene Press, The Murder of Halland is an unsettling antidote to the majority of fiction being published today. If it is a jigsaw, it’s one with a number of missing pieces, forcing the reader to confront those blank spaces.