Death of a Nightingale by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis
Death of a Nightingale by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis (Soho Press, 2013) (translated by Elisabeth Dyssegaard) is the third novel featuring Nina Borg. It begins with a tantalising prologue in which a son is collecting oral history from his Ukrainian mother. The old woman tells a “fairy story” about life under Stalin. It seems there were two sisters. Both could sing like nightingales but, as is the way when tales are being told in a fairy-story style, their jealousy had an unfortunate outcome. Obviously, it can’t be a real part of this family’s history. Ah, there’s that contentious word. History is one of these slippery concepts which implies more than it’s capable of delivering. Those who promote a study of the past imply they are dealing in facts, that there’s always a “truth” about what actually happened “back then”. This claim to credibility is essential if they are to secure a steady income for their study. Except, of course, truth has always been a relative phenomenon. Indeed, the idea we can excavate enough evidence to say with certainty how or why something happened is absurd.
The best the archaeologists of the past can achieve is a number of “facts”, e.g. there were caves or buildings occupied by humans, they erected henges out of stone or built bridges some of which persist today. But the detail of who lived in these habitations, or was involved in funding the building work or managed the construction itself will often remain speculative. It’s all a game of probabilities to narrow down the speculations to more manageable levels that we can understand. In more modern times, truth in some parts of the world is certified. For example, if a vehicle carries a signed statement that a dedicated team has just washed the vehicle, it must be true even though the vehicle obviously hasn’t been touched by water since the last time it rained. Truth can be very mutable depending on who writes the certificates.
After her last exploits, Nina is doing her best to rebuild. She still has health problems because of her exposure to radiation and is now divorced. Magnus is the new man in her life, also divorced. They both work at the Red Cross Centre Furescø, known in the area as Coal-House Camp, a home for immigrants who are formally going through the system for acceptance in Denmark. The story is made up of three interwoven threads. The first revolves around Nina and her attempts to befriend and help Rina, a girl from the Ukraine. Natasha, her mother, is in serious trouble, accused of murder. This has produced an acute anxiety state in the girl who’s struggling with asthma.
The second thread follows Søren Kirkegard, a member of the Danish Security and Intelligence Service who, because he met Nina in the last book, gets sucked into the investigation. It more formally becomes a part of his jurisdiction when he teams up with Symon Babko, a Ukrainian police officer who’s been abandoned by Colonel Savchuk, his senior officer in Denmark. The idea a foreign intelligence officer is conducting an unauthorised investigation on Danish soil is political dynamite. The question for Søren is what features of the current case justify such an obvious breach of protocol. The third narrative strand is based in 1934/5 and deals with the family relationships in a small township in the Ukraine. It’s supposed to be a part of the agricultural revolution that will return Russian food production to sustainable levels. Unfortunately that’s not working out too well.
As the story unwinds, we’re invited to play the game of mapping past identities on to current people. The reason I can call it a game is the grandmother’s oral history in which she chose to dress up the “facts” as a fairy story. We have to distinguish the “facts” from the fantasy, and understand how the past is influencing current events. Just what happened back in 1934/5 that might justify the sequence of deaths we’re seeing today? The answer is one of these long-running tragedies that people today prefer to remain buried in the past. Should anyone begin digging skeletons out of cupboards, questions must be asked, action must be taken. Identity and reputation are indispensable property. They confer status and repel accountability. They must be protected.
This is far better than Invisible Murder, the last book. Indeed, I think it in a different league. Whereas I was ambivalent about the extent of the morality on display and thought the threat confronted was somewhat overblown, this is a more seriously realistic study of character. By the end of this book, even Nina sees the downside of rushing into burning buildings to rescue people. Perhaps more importantly, she’s also taking some action to control her OCD. Whether either attempt to limit or control her behaviour will be successful remains uncertain. But she’s prepared to consider the emotions that have produced this heightened sense of duty to her fellow human beings. She’s even humble enough to reach out to those she’s hurt in the past. In this respect, the book is a great success. There’s a strong sense of credibility in the characterisation. The immediate story is also all too believable. I’m therefore concluding Death of a Nightingale is something of a triumph. The only feature preventing me from giving this the accolade of a complete triumph is a preference the “detectives” solve all aspects of the case. Here a considerable amount of authorial omniscience is required to tie up all the loose ends. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But I think it better when the endurance of the heroes is rewarded by them ending up in possession of all the relevant facts.
For a review of another book by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, see Invisible Murder.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.