THE UNDESIRED by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Minotaur Books; 2/14/17
CBTB Rating: 5/5
The Verdict: taught, spine-tingling suspense
If you’re looking for a crime book recommendation that will give you goosebumps and make you think twice about turning out the light, look no further than Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s newest US release, THE UNDESIRED. This unnerving, atmospheric Icelandic novel completely got under my skin, from its in-your-face opening to its utterly chilling final sentence. THE UNDESIRED might just be the perfect winter thriller.
Odinn’s life has just been turned upside down. His ex-wife has passed away in an accident, and he suddenly finds himself the sole caretaker of their eleven year old daughter. He’s just started a new job, too, and has taken over a new case: looking into the juvenile detention center Krokur, an establishment with a shady history. As Odinn’s work life and home life become increasingly bizarre, he begins to wonder if anything is as it seems—including the explanation for his ex-wife’s death. Meanwhile, in an alternate timeline set in the 1970’s, we meet a young woman working as a maid at Krokur: Aldis. Aldis is desperate to get away from Krokur just as soon as she’s saved enough money to rent an apartment in Reykjavik. But one day, a new boy is brought to Krokur—a boy whom Aldis finds deeply intriguing. But the boy isn’t what he seems, and Aldis soon finds herself more and more afraid of the goings on at Krokur…
I can safely say, this book was absolutely nothing that I expected it to be—and I was blown away by it. This book is so unlike my usual Nordic reads: it doesn’t follow a police officer, it doesn’t directly involve solving a crime, and it isn’t particularly violent. Yes, Odinn does have a “case” to look into - but he isn’t a cop, he’s a government employee, and his main job is to investigate how the detention center was treating the boys sent to live there. Now, it won’t come as a shock to you to know that Odinn does uncover something more sinister while investigating the center… but this is tangential to his original task. This is all to say: this book is a total breath of fresh (and very chilling) air.
THE UNDESIRED develops with measured, deliberate pacing, pulling the reader slowly but surely into its utterly sinister story. There were so many moments throughout this book when I quite literally got goosebumps or felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up (or both). What makes this book so impressive is how Sigurdardottir manages to create this tension with little to no violence or overt shocks. Instead, it's all in the shadows at the edge of her story—suggestions of the darkness that might await her characters. THE UNDESIRED is a story of psychological horrors more than physical violence, and I found this strategy all the more frightening for its subtlety.
While reading this book, I kept wondering if it would veer into the supernatural realm. THE UNDESIRED toes the line between this world and something otherworldly, often inviting readers to imagine that the things that go bump in the night might be exactly what you’re afraid they are. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t say too much on this topic—but I will say, I absolutely loved how the author kept me on my toes, wondering just how much of the otherworldly element of this story might be true. I loved even more that she never fully answered that question. This story is, at its core, about man-made madness—but it has an air of ghostly mystery that I found totally chilling.
THE UNDESIRED is a great choice for readers looking for a bridge between a Nordic thriller and a horror story. It’s not overtly violent or graphic, but I found it completely chilling. I did predict the ultimate explanation for one of the deaths central to this story, but that didn’t in any way diminish my enjoyment of its ultimate reveal—every step along the way to this reveal was fraught with tension, and when the reveal finally came, it was in an even darker way than I could have imagined.
I highly recommend THE UNDESIRED for readers looking to be swept up in a crime novel that slowly and deliberately unravels into a story of death and madness, all set against the backdrop of an Icelandic winter.
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Minotaur Books (February 14, 2017)