Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Blue Place - Nicola Griffith

I've been working my way through Nicola Griffith's backlist ever since reading her debut novel Ammonite in 2013. To date, six of her novels have been published and each of them has been wildly different. Griffith has written science fiction, historical fiction and crime novels. The Blue Place is one of the three crime novels focused on main character Aud Torvingen. It was first published in 1998 and was followed by Stay in 2002 and Always in 2007. I don't read a whole lot of crime novels, in fact  I never got much beyond Sjöwall and Wahlöö, so I might be very well equipped to review this novel. Even without looking at the conventions of the genre however, there is plenty in this novel to write about. I thought it was a fascinating piece of writing.

Former police lieutenant Auld Torvingen quite literally runs into a beautiful woman on one of her late night walks thorough the city of Atlanta. The woman disappears again quickly, just as behind them a house explodes. It belongs to a renowned and somewhat reclusive art historian. When drugs are found on the premises, the police assumes some kind of drug deal gone bad. Aud doesn't believe that for a second but it is not her problem until the woman she ran into that night contacts her. Against her better judgment she takes on the assignment of digging deeper into the case and is pulled into a world of art, drug trade, money laundering and murder.

Aud is a pretty dark character. She is clearly traumatized by and event in her past and it takes most of the novel for her to bring herself to the point of talking about it. She is also a very competent woman. Very observant and able to read people very well, she's cut out for police work. Her upbringing and education have made her comfortable in many layers of society and she is quite capable of defending herself if needed. In fact, violence has an attraction to her. It takes her to that cold place where everything is clear and there is no doubt about what she needs to do. It is a place where her rational mind wants to stay away from. All these talents make Aud a bit quick to judge and overconfident at times, traits that leads her to make mistakes. Sometimes very costly ones. It also saves Aud from being too perfect, although there might be readers who feel she is anyway.

The plot itself is quite elegant. It is something of a mystery of course, and every time Aud thinks she has it figured out, there is this one fact that doesn't fit the big picture. This one odd find that keeps bothering her and that leads her to probe ever deeper into the web of criminal activity that lies at the heart of the events in the novel. On the personal level there is also quite a bit going on. Aud, like a true crime novel protagonist, is not really happy. She has a complicated relationship with her mother and her love life appears to be limited to occasionally picking up a woman (like many of Griffith's characters Aud is a lesbian) at a bar. It is clear Aud is paying a price for the independent life she has created for herself.

It would seem Griffith likes to write about things she personally experienced (which, mind you, is not the same as writing autobiographical material) and I'm beginning to see more and more links between the various books as well as between the books and Griffith's life. I know she spent some time in the Netherlands (how you could possibly know about obscure larger like Lindeboom for instance, is hard to explain any other way) and, like Aud, she did teach self-defense at one point.  She also spent time in Whitby in the late 1980s, a place also mentioned in the novel and the site of the monastery of Saint Hilda of Whitby, the main character in Griffith's latest novel Hild. I was half expecting an ammonite to show up in the text too. What I'm not aware of is a connection between Griffith and Norway but this novel has made me wonder if there is one.

In her previous novel, Slow River (1995), the main character is a Dutch woman, although she has a very cosmopolitan lifestyle. In The Blue Place the main character is half Norwegian, half American. This might not mean much to most readers but I am Dutch and my girlfriend is Norwegian, which makes me look at these novels with from different perspective. Where is Slow River, Lore's nationality is not that important to the story, in this novel, it plays an important part. A large section of the final part of the novel is set in and around Oslo. Norwegian food is especially prominent. I've been introduced to such things as lapskaus, lutefisk and raspeballer and most recently krumkake but this novel lists a whole lot I'm not familiar with.

Aud is taking the trip to Norway with her American client, which gives Griffith an excuse to explain some of the Norwegian attitudes. I recognize quite a bit of it. The attitude towards money, the landscape, the reference to tourists getting themselves killed in stupid ways, the position of the church, May 17th and a few more. One of the things I missed was the Norwegian tendency to stick to their local dialect. Aud, who according to the book has lived in both Oslo and Bergen would be very aware of that. I'm trying to get my girlfriend to read it as I suspect we're getting a bit too much of an outsider view on the country despite seeing it through Aud's eyes. You probably have to be Norwegian to see it though.

The Blue Place is quite a dark novel with a very dramatic ending. The novel wraps up the mystery part of the story nicely but it is clear that on a personal level we're not done with Aud. She, it would seem, has a few challenges remaining and if will be interesting to see how she goes on after the events in this book. The novel is quite different from the novels by Griffith I have read so far. It shows her versatility as a writer, something I greatly appreciate in her work. For readers who start out with her science fiction it may be a bit of leap but if you don't confine yourself to reading one genre, you could do worse than give this book a try. I greatly enjoyed it and Griffith has piqued my curiosity about the next volume. Perhaps I'll come back to this series later in the year.

Book Details
Title: The Blue Place
Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Pages: 308
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-380-79088-3
First published: 1998

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