I Remember You (Ég man þig) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Got this because it was recommended by my sister, who said it was the scariest book she’d ever read.

I’d never heard of this Icelandic novel, translated into English by Philip Roughton, but having just been in Norway for a gothic ghostier, I was in the mood to give this a try. There’s a film of it, too, which is on Amazon Prime, I think.

Whereas Dark Matter was set in a fictive location on Spitsbergen, I Remember You is set in the abandoned village of Hesteyri, and it’s nearest inhabited settlement, Ísafjörður, both in the far northwest of Iceland. You can look up Hesteyri and see photos of the scattered houses, the abandoned mackerel processing plant (and former whaling station), and the old Doctor’s House, which acts as a guest house and café in the short summer season, when people visit the area for hiking holidays and murder ghosts.

“Scariest book I’ve ever read” sets up quite a challenge, and the recent benchmark for me (as mentioned a few days back) is Pine by Francine Toon, which grabbed me – in one scene in particular – and made horripilation happen all over my body.

I Remember You is a bit of a generic title, and I was convinced it was a case of a British publisher picking one out of a hat rather than using the original Icelandic title. But I was wrong. Ég man þig means “I Remember You” apparently, although translating that back into Icelandic (using Google) renders it as ég man eftir þér, so there’s that. It’s a thorn (þ) not a P, so it sounds more like “thig”. Anyway, my complaint here is that I don’t think it’s a good title, so it might as well have been picked out of a hat.

There are two narratives. One is set in Hesteyri and concerns three thirtysomethings who have acquired an abandoned property and have plans to renovate it and then rent it out during the summer. The other is set in Ísafjörður and concerns a hospital doctor/psychologist who is asked to help the local police with a disturbing case of vandalism at the local pre-school.

The reader knows that these two threads will eventually twine together, but the question is how, why, and when.

The three young people in Hesteyri are hopeless, clearly unprepared, out of their depth, and without the first clue as to what needs doing in the house. They’re dropped on the jetty by a boatman who promises to pick them up in a week. But they’ve arrived on this isolated and electricity-free headland (which isn’t an island but might as well be because there are no roads) without so much as a camping lamp or a candle between them. The three are a near-bankrupt married couple and their friend, a young widow whose late husband was the instigator of the scheme. The widow, Líf, is useless from the start, having been very seasick on the way over, and seeming to be both flaky and lazy. The couple, Katrín and Garðar, are tense with each other. Katrín is our viewpoint character, the least enthusiastic of the three, who wants to go home as soon as they arrive and she sees the location for the first time.

Meanwhile, back in civilisation, Freyr the doctor is recently divorced and grieving the loss of his son, who disappeared three years before during a game of hide and seek with his age mates.

So far so standard, I think. Lost child, check, deserted location, check, vengeful for some reason spirit, check, weird goings on.

Horripilation? Or not? Well. As I started reading, I was aware that there were wheels within wheels here, and that the mechanism of the plot was grinding along, leading up to something. And I inwardly predicted that it would take until about halfway through to kick into gear. And there came a moment, in one of the Hesteyri chapters, when a sense of creeping menace arose and there was some horripilation. I looked down at the bottom right hand corner of my Kindle screen: 50%.

So yeah, it got me, there, and a little bit later on, but overall I would have to say that, no, this was not the scariest thing I’ve ever read. Being of an analytical frame of mind, I’m interested in why.

Now, this is not to say that I don’t think this is worth reading. If you like this kind of thing, you will “enjoy” it, and your gooseflesh mileage may differ. And we do not live in a universe where you cannot read both this and, say, Pine. You don’t have to choose.

That said, here are my thoughts. First of all, I was reading this in translation. And I always find, with translated scandi thrillers especially, that there’s a certain flatness to the style. The translator is trying not to get in the way, but I always sense their spectral presence. Take for example, one incident. The word goodbye appears in the house, spelled out with shells on the floor. So I’m thinking, goodbye? In shells? So I look up the Icelandic word for goodbye, which is bless. So it would have been the shorter bless on the floor. But if you reverse translate bless, Google gives you, well, bless. So did the ghost spell goodbye, or did it spell bless? Clearly the translator understood from the context what word to choose, but I was aware that a choice had been made nevertheless.

So I think translation creates a distance for me that prevents me from fully suspending my disbelief. The other thing, concerning Pine, was that my anxiety was ramped up in that book because there was a living child who was being badly parented. This is a much more effective button to push for me than the dead-or-missing child trope used in I Remember You. Again, your mileage may differ, but my personal anxiety is much higher with bad parenting than it is with the grief of the already-established tragic loss. In other words, Pine primed my emotions for the horripilation far more effectively.

Finally, as the narrative threads and weird goings on begin to come together, I just thought it was all a bit too much, so I was more aware of those plot grinding wheels than I should have been.

%d bloggers like this: