Friday, January 23, 2009

The Redbreast - Jo Nesbø

When Norway's crime squad wants to quietly remove Harry Hole from the public's - and especially the press's eye - they promote him to investigator with the POT (Security Service) to essentially push paper around. In the process of pushing this paper around, Harry finds himself assigned to watch a neo-Nazi who escaped prison on a legal technicality and that assignment leads Harry into a serial murder case that has ties to World War II Nazis.

Jo Nesbø's The Redbreast is a complex novel involving two plots - one present-day Oslo, Norway, one World War II Eastern Front - that creatively swerve around, over and under each other for about 400 pages and then collide to create a spectacular conclusion. Each time the plots come close to each other, the reader moves a little closer to understanding the outcome, to solving the case. And THEN the plots twist. Right up to the end Nesbø is throwing twist after twist into the fold, which keeps the pace quick and the action sharp. This is a long book in page numbers, but those pages almost turn themselves. And don't get lazy reading this one; there are no lulls or unimportant parts.

The characters who inhabit this novel are rich and multi-dimensional. I've heard many people complaining about the cliché alcoholic cop. Harry Hole is a recovering alcoholic, but he doesn't fit any of the clichés. His relationships with others is probably what builds his character the most. When he leaves the crime squad, he is also leaving his partner and confidant, Ellen. Harry's relationship with his sister also helps to define him. He isn't a rebel or a maverick, and while he, at times, is on the outside looking in, he actually wants to belong. He desperately wants that light on his answerphone to be lit up when he comes home.

One of the elements I found most stunning about this novel were the various parallels of man to nature. The body of the novel presents various elements of nature, but the bookends are references to birds. Ellen presents the dilemma of the redbreast early in the novel:

'It's a rare bird, the redbreast...Ninety per cent of them migrate south. A few take the risk, as it were, and stay here...the ones that stay do so in the hope that it will be a mild winter, right? That may be OK, but if they're wrong, they die. So why not head south, just in case, you might be wondering. Are they just lazy, the birds that stay?...if it's a mild winter, they can choose the best nesting places before the others return...It's a calculated risk, you see. You're either laughing all over your face or you're in deep, deep shit. Whether to take the risk or not. If you take the gamble, you may fall off the twig frozen stiff one night and not thaw out till spring. Bottle it and you might not have anywhere to nest when you return. These are, as it were, the eternal dilemmas you're confronted with.'

And the book ends with a look at the wagtail:

A bird strutted in front of them, wagged its tail, pecked at the grass and kept a watchful eye open.

'Wagtail,' Harry said. 'Motacilla alba. Cautious chap...Our Small Birds...I read in the bird book I mentioned that no one knows why wagtails wag their tails when they stand still. It's a mystery. The only thing we know is that they can't stop...'

The imagery these two analogies present is stunning, and their purposes multi-faceted. They obviously are presenting themes in the novel but they also work to create foreshadowing. The novel ends on bit of a mysterious note, one that makes the reader suspect that we haven't heard the last of Harry Hole. And that's a good thing in my opinion.


Corey Wilde January 24, 2009 at 8:38 AM  

Excellent review, Jen. OK, one more on the 'must read' list.

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