MORE BITTER THAN DEATH
Author: Camilla Grebe and Asa Traff
Simon & Schuster RRP $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
After reading the debut offering from Camilla Grebe and Asa Traff in 2012, Some Kind of Peace, I’ve been looking forward to reading more from this clever duo. More Bitter Than Death was released a while ago, but has only just been translated into English. Was it worth the wait? Sure was.
The story picks up some months after protagonist Siri Bergmann, a psychotherapist, escapes death at the hands of a stalker. She’s been asked to co-facilitate a group for women who are victims of domestic violence. Her colleagues express some concern that Siri might not be up to it, but she convinces them that she is – it gives her something else to focus on and perhaps it will help her make peace with the past.
However, that’s not quite the beginning. First there is a flash-forward to an horrific scene where a five-year-old girl, Tilde (or Tilda in the translation), witnesses her mother brutally kicked to death. Certainly a way to hook readers – of course you want to know what happens and whether Tilde will be okay. Is it a case of domestic violence? Or is it a robbery homicide? The reader is then taken back to the beginnings of the group, when the victims tell their stories. There’s Kattis, beaten by her ex-boyfriend and afraid he’s not done with her yet; there’s Malin, a young woman raped by a man she met online, and Sofie, an abused teenager; and Sirkka and Hillevi, both abused wives. The group acts as a kind of sanctuary from the real world – for Siri as much as the patients.
Before long, the safety the women feel in the meeting is invaded by the cold realities of their lives. Kattis reveals that her ex-boyfriend Henrik may be a suspect in the murder of his most-recent girlfriend, Susanne – Tilde’s mother. Henrik approaches Siri to plead his case, saying that Kattis is not who she seems, Malin is becoming increasingly unstable and Hillevi just wants to protect her children. Siri’s guard is up, more than ever, but is it up against the right person? Can she protect everyone? Can she protect herself? And while she is protecting herself, what is she potentially losing? When a group member is killed, all the group members, Siri included, have to set aside their search for peace while the search for a murderer takes precedence. It’s time for old demons to be faced head on.
More Bitter Than Death is a tense, fast-paced read, which I got through in two sittings. However, it is more character-driven and the mystery, although threaded through the story with flashbacks and clinical notes, does feel secondary to the impact of the various events on the characters, particularly Siri. Her vulnerability, explained in Some Kind of Peace, and indecision adds to the tension, skewing her judgment and objectivity. It’s something other characters point out, but Siri cannot accept. She knows she’s indecisive and she knows her personal barriers may impact on her future happiness, but as for her objectivity as a professional, she doesn’t accept that her past continues to have any influence. The twist at the end is hinted at many times, albeit with some well-placed red herrings to deter readers … and the title itself reveals more than first expected.
I suppose the obvious question is whether More Bitter Than Death can be read as a standalone, since it continues the story began in Some Kind of Peace. It can, but you will gain more insight into Siri by reading the first. Grebe and Traff use location well to enhance the chilling themes of their books and, aside from the domestic violence theme, they touch on alcoholism, drug dependency, personality disorders, relationship conflicts and more.
For lovers of crime fiction, especially Scandinavian crime fiction, I’d highly recommend this well-written, edgy read. I’m looking forward to seeing how Siri develops as a character and whether she ever finds that elusive peace.
Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of SImon and Schuster.
Bookish treat: This is on the chilly side, both with the themes and the location. Get a hot chocolate … and don’t forget the marshmallows.