The Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan
One of the more interesting developments in the marketing field has been the increasing use of quotes on the front and back covers, and on the front end papers. Bilbo Baggins (author of There and Back Again) says this is the best fantasy book to reach the Shires! There seems to be an assumption both that all the readers will know who this Baggins person is and are likely to be influenced by his opinion. In this, I note with considerable amusement that my own words have occasionally been used as part of the quoted praise. While naturally being convinced of my own ability to judge the worth of books, I seriously doubt many people agree with the generality of my opinions (particularly those who know who I am). The reason for starting in this way is the words on the back cover of The Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan (Quercus, 2013) Dinosaurens fjer translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund. The headline is, “Danish crime novel of the decade!” Not that I take any notice, but it does seem to me to trespass closer on to the territory of hectoring, intimidation and bullying. This is not just the book of the year, you see. It’s the book of the decade. Disagree with this informed judgement at your peril! Although in the defence of the British publisher, Denmark voted and knows what it likes. Yet, in the wider scheme of things, the fact the country only has 5.6 million population means their opinion counts for even less than mine (or so I believe when the book is translated into English and gets judged by wider criteria).
So what do we actually get in this package? Well, the first and most obvious element is the number of words. This tome weighs in at a chunky 448 pages, so it’s suitable for one of those long Scandinavian nights when the snow falls and the sun refuses to shine. I’m not against longer books per se, but if I’m going to wade through more than four-hundred pages, it has to prove worth the effort when the dust has settled. To make us feel there’s a big reward at the end, the author sets up the narrative with three major threads. Obviously, we start with the murder mystery with the first of three deaths the result of a rather gruesome method. So, if you’re of a weak disposition, you might want to skip over the detailed discussions. The second and third deaths are routine and not something that will disturb. The second element is an exploration of a manufactured scientific dispute as to the origin of birds. It seems some people refuse to accept birds evolved from dinosaurs. This could have been impenetrable but, as a biologist, the author makes the essence of the debate eminently accessible. The third and by far the most substantial part of the book is an exploration of the major characters and how they relate to each other.
Looking back on this, I’m quite surprised it all manages to fit into only 448 pages. We learn whodunnit, which side of the dinosaur debate is right, and what has predisposed the major characters to end up in this state. No mean achievement. To get us to the end, we have three points of view: Anna Bella Nor has written her PhD thesis and is awaiting adjudication when one of her two supervisors is murdered, Soren Marhauge is a police detective who has one of the best track records for solving crimes, and Clive Freeman is the Canadian end of the biological dispute. The thread that ties these POVs together is the dinosaur issue. The murdered supervisor and Freeman were the primary protagonists in the international dispute over the evolutionary origin of birds. The topic for Anna Bella’s thesis is this occasionally violent disagreement. She’s expected to side with her own supervisor and demolish the views advanced by Freeman. From this, you’ll understand that this obscure evolutionary spat could be the motive for the first murder. Indeed, if this is the reason for the demise of the eminent professor, Anna Bella may be next in line (assuming her thesis reaches the same scientific conclusion).
It would be fair to say almost all the people who feature in this book are damaged in some way. They have mostly had very unfortunate experiences as children and/or tragedy has supervened to leave real scars. To that extent, this preoccupation with the reasons for everyone’s psychological damage enables the book to satisfy the criterion for acceptance as Scandinavian noir. We are exploring some very painful emotional issues. Parents died when the children were young, or the father was psychologically abusive, or the mother had severe postpartum depression, and so on. This leads me to a gentle aside. This is not a warning as such. But you should not read this book with the expectation of a classic murder mystery. Rather three deaths occur while all the major characters are resolving their personal issues. Obviously, neither Anna Bella nor Soren Marhauge know whodunnit but, despite her erratic and angry behavior, she manages to gain the confidence of the three people who can give her the pieces of the jigsaw. The answer proves to be one of these immensely sad stories which, by virtue of the detail we’ve been given in the opening section of the book, resonates with real power at the end when Anna Bella is able to telephone Soren Marhauge and tell him who to arrest.
So now it comes down the the time when I get magisterial. The opening takes its time to set the scene. You need a little patience. Be reassured. Literally everything that comes through the first two-hundred pages becomes increasingly relevant in the second half of the book. By the time you finish, you understand why two of the three POV characters end up better adjusted people. They have all looked into the past and understand the forces that shaped them. Two can begin a healing process. One is trapped in the past and can never recover. Having reached the end, I feel a sense of rightness about the character development. You leave feeling you have actually met these people and spent a little time getting to know them. You can see hope for two of them which lifts the pervading sense of gloom in the first two-thirds of the book. I’m not convinced The Dinosaur Feather is the book of the decade in the international ranking order, but it’s certainly a very impressive piece of writing and is well worth reading!
A copy of this book was sent to me to review.