Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Kin - Snorri Kristjansson

Kin, from Snorri Kristjansson is a story of family, and what ties them together. Old grudges and old wounds, for certain, and if they’re bound by blood, that blood can also be spilled. It’s a detective story set in the era of Viking raiders, one where a glowering sky enfolds a group as much in bloody thrall to their pasts as enraptured by family affection. If the combination of Vikings, mystery and murder sound good, then this is the book for you.

This is a starker world, one where a household is one of the core units, where what can be farmed is the limit of one’s landholding. Kristjansson evokes the atmosphere of the period with remarkable skill. The crystal blue skies, the sense of isolation, the mixture of self-reliance and reliance on the settlement group. The farmland sits in a wider landscape with a stark beauty, giving a unique blend of humanity and wilderness at a time when that demarcation wasn’t yet fully realised. There’s a wonderful liminality to the setting as well; the Gods of the Norse have a presence here which is almost physical, their existence felt and accepted, if never entirely seen. The role of religion, of faith, is expored somewhat here as well – as a driver for peoples motivations, as a means of social control, and in its own purity and simplicity. Whether or not the Gods are real, this is a world which accepts that they are, and that acceptance permeates the thoughts and actions of the characters.

And what characters they are. Our focus is Helga Finnsdottir, the incisive ward of the Reginsson family. Helga is clever, certainly, but also capable of being smoothly charming and acting quickly. She carries some insecurities around her own position in the family, and those facets of self doubt are ones the text doesn’t shy away from. But she’s a solid investigator, one with an interest in the truth, even as she starts digging into family secrets. If Helga isn’t all sweetness and light, she’s certainly forceful enough to carry the reader along with her, and her own weaknesses are ones it’s easy to empathise with. One of the strands explored in the text is that of agency – as women, Helga and her female relatives could have been seen as marginalised, but here they’re a very active part of the family; while Helga carries some of the aura of an outsider, not tied to the family by bonds of blood, her adopted mother is a force of nature, one always able to achieve her goals through putting the right word in the right ear, through shared history or careful construction of narrative. That soft power is backed up by Reginsson, an ex-raider, now aging but still powerful in his own raw physicality. The Reginsson partnership is one of the highlights of the text – a match which clearly has decades of affection behind it, alongside a clarity born of experience, and a ruthlessness likewise.

But there’s a swarm of other characters here as well, as the Reginsson family comes together. The raiding son, with an eye for wine and another for women. The second son, a tower of a man with old wounds from his brother. The third son, a farmer, who may be carrying his own demons. The daughter, a vicious fighter with schemes of her own (and a husband from as far away as Sweden!). The Reginsson children are a complex bunch of marauders, and there’s always a sense - in the dialogue, in the way they pass each other mead, in who goes to do chores with whom  -  that they have their own agendas at play. Once the initial barrage of names is over, they swiftly grow their own personalities, sympathetic and otherwise, stepping out of our cultural preconceptions of the period to become living, breathing, scheming, stabbing, screaming, plotting, charming, friendly, murderous people.

To be honest, I would have been happy with Kin if it had just been a memoir of the Norse. The family dynamics, the close knit, often tense, occasionally poisonous relationships wrapped inside bonds of blood and affection make this an absolutely cracking family drama. But it’s a murder mystery too. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t say any more – but the mystery is carefully constructed and plausible, and the resolution reasonable, with a solid emotional payoff. It’s the relationships between characters which make the stakes, and make the situation feel real – and they’re top-notch. Somewhere in the dizzying spirals of ties between families is a killer, but quite who it is – in a world where violence floats close to the surface – is another question.

Anyway, Kin. Do you want to read it? The pagan Norse period may not be for everyone, but here it’s given surpassing depth and integrity. The characters are complex and believable, and the central mystery one which rewards careful reading – and working it out alongside Helga was great fun. If you’re in a Scandi-noir mood, and willing to leap back through the centuries, then this is a book which will reward a reading; I, for one, look forward to the further adventures of Helga Finnsdottir.

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