Allis Hagtorn takes a job as a live-in cook and gardener for Sigurd Bagge. Wanting to escape her life which involved some type of public scandal, she is happy to retreat to an isolated house (“liberated from the watchful gaze of others, free from their idle chit-chat”) where she has virtually no interaction with anyone other than her employer. And initially, there is even very little communication with him; he is a taciturn man who barely acknowledges her existence. Slowly, however, an awkward relationship develops between them, but though they make revelations, both keep secrets. The mysteries surrounding her boss fascinate Allis but they also leave her discomfited.
There is a mounting, pervasive sense of dread throughout. Allis is largely cut off from the world; other than Sigurd, she speaks only to a surly shopkeeper who makes cryptic and sneering comments that unsettle Allis. Sigurd’s wife is away but no explanation is given for her extended absence. There’s a locked room. And there’s the brooding, mercurial Sigurd whose abrupt mood swings create a sense of danger. Even nature (a silent forest, dead grass and shrubbery, malevolent gulls, invading mice, a sky the colour of blood) seems menacing.
The two characters are complex. Sigurd is obviously enigmatic and volatile, but he also seems manipulative. He pulls Allis closer by engaging her in conversation but then pushes her away, as if trying to keep her confused and unsettled: “His expression . . . always scrutinizing, as if to demonstrate that I was his, that he could decide where I could and couldn’t go.” And some of his behaviour and statements can easily be interpreted as threatening: “There’s no guarantee of anything” and “She won’t be troubling you anymore.” Why does he say that there were “quite a few” responses to his job posting and later suggest Allis was the only applicant? Though Allis becomes obsessed with him, there is little that makes Sigurd an attractive person.
Allis, however, is also not an admirable person. She describes herself as some who “always started with the same unbridled enthusiasm before swiftly giving up. I possessed no sense of perseverance, no will to accomplish anything in full.” She believes she has something within her “that prevented me from being faithful.” She mentions, “my irrational pride prevented me from ever taking the initiative when it came to reconciliation, ever.” When she learns that a man is a manual labourer, his lower status matters to her; she even admits her shallowness: “Did he realize just how superficial I was?” She acknowledges that she was “willing to reduce to rubble” the life of someone “who had never been anything but good to me.” Like Sigurd, she also seems manipulative. She is desperate for male attention and does what she can to entice Sigurd. Furthermore, she sees the job as a chance at a new life; she wants to transform herself: “There was salvation to be found, I could create a sense of self, mould a congruous identity in which none of the old parts of me could be found.” She is not beyond using the situation for her own ulterior motives.
Allis is the narrator but she is hardly reliable. She claims that Sigurd doesn’t make eye contact: “He didn’t look me in the eye but instead stared past me” and “He didn’t seem particularly bothered about making eye contact with me as he spoke.” Later, however, he says to her, “You’ve never looked me in the eye. . . . You don’t look me in the eye, you just gaze straight past me.” So who doesn’t make eye contact? Is Sigurd strange or is she? At one point, Sigurd says, “If I were as strange as you are . . . You’re not normal.” Then there’s the discussion about swimming. Early on, Allis insists, “I can swim” but on two other occasions, she repeats, “I don’t swim.”
Then there are some thoughts that she mentions that are downright strange: “I could play any role, it was my greatest talent” and “Did [Sigurd’s wife] have to come back? She did, of course. But no, she couldn’t” and “As long as I thought of her as no more than a shopkeeper – not as an individual, but as part of some vague, hostile force – then it would be easier to kill her, I thought” and “[mundane tasks] anchor the stream of thoughts that otherwise drifted so easily to darker places.”
I enjoyed the references to Norse mythology which unify the novel and clarify the ending. When Allis first meets Sigurd, she is reminded of Balder, but it seems she sees herself as this Norse god who “brings about the destruction of the world, but that allows for a newer, better world to emerge.” She seems to see Sigurd as Loki “who has no one” and she says, like Loki’s wife, she would help Sigurd atone if he were somehow being punished. In a third discussion of the legend, she mentions that “Old guilt is destroyed by fire and swallowed by the sea. . . . Perhaps . . . guilt requires atonement, perhaps it needs to be wiped out if a new world is to emerge.” It is not coincidental that the phrase “corpses nestled among its feathers” is repeated at the end with its implication that “Maybe . . . even in the new world there is potential for evil.” (And surely it is not by chance that a dress of “shimmering, blue-green material almost the colour of a mallard’s head” fits Allis perfectly and reminds the reader of Sigurd’s dream of a tribunal which featured a woman with a mallard’s head of “astonishingly beautiful shimmering green”?)
This is not your average run-of-the-mill psychological thriller. Its layers actually invite a second reading.