Review: I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

translated by Philip Roughton

original publication (in Icelandic): 2012

first English edition: 2012, Minotaur Books

grab a copy here or through your local independent bookstore or library

Winner of the Icelandic Crime Fiction Award, I Remember You: A Ghost Story is a carefully-plotted, patient novel. Sigurðardóttir slowly unspools the clues to questions about deaths and disappearances throughout the story until, by the end, you’ll find yourself speed-reading to learn the answers.

Skillfully translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton, I Remember You switches between telling the story of a psychiatrist and doctor named Freyr (living in the town of Isafjördur), and that of three friends (Garðar and Katrín, who are married, and Líf) who have moved to the deserted village of Hesteyri to renovate a house and run it as a bed-and-breakfast. Freyr has been called on by a detective named Dagný to help with an investigation into an act of vandalism. A primary school has been ransacked and the word “dirty” scrawled across a wall. Weirdly enough, no one can figure out how the vandal actually entered the building. Freyr has his own problems, trying to move forward with his life after the mysterious disappearance of his young son three years before and his wife’s subsequent emotional collapse.

Meanwhile, Garðar and Katrín have sunk the rest of their meager savings into renovating a house that Garðar’s best friend Einar (Líf’s husband) had first wanted to fix up, before his untimely death. Dropped off on the shore of the lonely, abandoned village with some provisions and very little renovation knowledge, Garðar, Katrín and Líf (with a dog named Putti) attempt to make their home in the creepy building in the middle of winter while they rip up rotted wood and repaint the walls. Putti, I must say, plays a significant role in the story and is just as much of a well-rounded character as his unfortunate house-mates.

Ever so slowly, the two stories begin to converge. Not long after moving into the house, the three friends start seeing glimpses of what appears to be a child, and soon they start hearing him whispering and giggling. Back in Isafjördur, Freyr and Dagný begin to learn the story of Bernodus, a bullied and abused boy whose own strange disappearance several decades before mirrors that of Freyr’s own son, Benni. Around the time of Bernodus’s disappearance, there had also been an incident of vandalism at a primary school, with the faces of certain children in the school photo scratched out. When Freyr and Dagný find that only one of those people is still living (the others died strange deaths), they start connecting the disappearances of the two boys and eventually link them to Hesteyri.

Sigurðardóttir skillfully manages the alternating chapters, leaving us wanting more at the end of each one and then having to wait until the narrative thread picks back up. The creepiness of the abandoned village is thoroughly explored, but could have been ratcheted up a bit faster. The ending, which unfolds as expected, leaves too much unexplained. Okay, yes, I know it’s a ghost story, and Sigurðardóttir is building on the idea that angry, unavenged ghosts hang around haunting people until things are set right and they can finally go where ghosts eventually go. But is there something particularly special about Hesteyri that it is the site of all of these ghosts (because there’s another one at the end!) and child disappearances? That would have been an interesting exploration. Overall, though, I Remember You is the kind of book that draws you in quickly and makes you want to ignore everything else until you finish it.

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