book review: The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson

THE GIRL WHO DIED by Ragnar Jónasson
translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
Minotaur Books, 2021

I have a rule that I don’t read thrillers by men; I break the rule every now and then (usually for Riley Sager, whose works I discovered when I still thought he was a woman), and I thought The Girl Who Died sounded so up my alley that I figured I’d also take a chance on new-to-me author Ragnar Jónasson. A few chapters in, the main (female) character, on her first night in a brand new town, is feeling restless and unsettled and can’t shake the feeling that someone’s watching her. She decides to clear her head by… going for a walk. At night. In the pitch black. By herself. This is why I don’t read thrillers by men.

Anyway, this was fine. I thought the premise was brilliant: in the 1980s, Una, a young teacher from Reykjavik, takes a post teaching two students in a small Icelandic town called Skálar which is so remote only ten people live there. (Skálar was a real town, but Jónasson explains in a forward that he took artistic liberties as it hasn’t been occupied since the 1950s.) Una receives a less than warm welcome and can’t shake the feeling that even though this teaching position was advertised, none of the locals want her there.

I had a lot of problems with this book but I’ll stick to my two main criticisms. The way Una’s ‘alcoholism’ is treated is absolutely laughable; this woman will drink a single bottle of wine in a week and the whole town will be whispering about how she must be an alcoholic, the ridiculous nature of which isn’t remotely addressed; it’s like the reader is also meant to question Una’s credibility, seeing as Una herself starts to after a while (which leads to a moment which is just ridiculously outlandish if you can’t buy that Una actually believes her sanity is slipping away — which, sorry, I couldn’t!). For one thing, is there anything more tired than alcoholic narrators in thrillers, and for another, if you’re going to use that trope, at least… do it convincingly? 

There are also chapters interspersed throughout Una’s story, each about two pages long and fully italicized, from the perspective of an unknown character. Again, this isn’t a convention that I’m ever particularly wild about, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen it executed in a way where there was LESS payoff than there was in this book. As in, these passages could have been cut out and not a single thing would change about this book’s resolution.

What Jónasson does well is create Skálar’s atmosphere, so if you like eerie, slightly spooky books set in remote Icelandic villages, it’s worth a read, but mystery fans are bound to feel a bit underwhelmed by this one.

9 thoughts on “book review: The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson

  1. I have never read this author so I will trust you. But I know that Iceland had prohibition from 1915 until the 90’s .. Yep. And still today you can only buy alcohol at State appointed liquor stores (whereas in the rest of Europe, you can buy alcohol everywhere). It might explain some of the book ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, the prohibition was discussed in the book — the disconnect for me was that the characters seemed to largely agree that the prohibition and Iceland’s alcohol culture was a bit silly, but still they accused this character of alcoholism to the point where she started doubting her own reliability after having like, 1-2 glasses of wine…? I would have loved a more thorough exploration of the social and cultural effects of prohibition but this definitely was not that!


  2. I was going to ask why you avoid thrillers written by men but I think that is abundantly clear! Why can men not understand that walking alone in the dark is not a soothing activity for women??!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL right 😂

      Aside from that very specific example (which I do feel is the perfect microcosm for the issues I tend to have), I find that male-authored thrillers often overly sensationalize violence against women, especially sexual violence. It also bothers me that thriller protagonists are almost always female, and you’ll often get passages like these (women walking alone at night in an unfamiliar place to clear their heads!!!!) where it is so evident that the author hasn’t expended one single braincell considering lived experiences outside their own.

      Of course, these are all pretty massive generalizations and again, I’m willing to make exceptions on occasion especially when someone whose opinion I trust has read a certain book and can vouch for it being written respectfully, but yeah, on the whole I’ve just been burned a few too many times!

      Liked by 1 person

      • That makes a lot of sense. I think with a book where a female character acts this way there’s also a high chance that it’s not a book that had a lot of female input and those types tend to ring false for those of us who have lived experience.

        Liked by 1 person

      • YES, exactly. If that landed on my desk as an editor that’s exactly the kind of thing I’ve have a conversation with the author about. It really makes me wonder how many women worked on the book — it is just so jarring!

        Liked by 1 person

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