Cage completes an original, intensely dark triptych that chronicles post crash Iceland. This is a gritty, textured, bitter-sweet tale of life for a small group of ordinary people caught up in the financial collapse and it’s aftermath. People who have gravitated to or been pushed toward the edges of society, people who struggle to cope. Snare was about the way people get drawn into the underbelly of society, Trap revealed how hard it is to escape that way of life and Cage is about the inevitable consequence – life is as much a cage in the outside world as it is in a prison cell.
There’s a moody realism to Cage that combines daily travails with major seismic events, everything from the bloated role of Icelandic banking in the financial crash to everyday life on the streets: relationships, loyalties, money, greed, drugs, fitting in, all things that can limit the characters’ ability to determine their own lives. How much choice do people really have in their lives? How much is just reacting to events and to other people, making the best of a bad situation? These are questions Sigurdardottir poses when her characters make good and bad choices, she gets us to empathise with their experience not judge them.
Three is a magic number, it represents completeness and perfection, or at least that’s the definition you get if you mix the words of a pop song with the sermon of a southern Methodist preacher. So, to the concept of the trinity and how the whole is equal to more than the sum of its parts, in this case the Reykjavik trilogy: Snare, Trap and the final volume, Cage. The best way I can explain the concept of the perfect trilogy is the interconnectivity, it’s not linear but circular, values, themes and stories bounce between the three books like echoes, if this was a prison sentence it would be concurrent not consecutive, even though there is a coherent timeline. For me, the Reykjavik trilogy now joins a select list of crime series that demonstrate a unified purpose. Snare, Trap, and Cage, if you haven’t sensed a theme yet you’re really not paying attention.
There’s a strange dichotomy in Icelandic crime fiction, it’s capable of being claustrophobic (small and insular) and yet, vast (uninhabited and spacious). Sigurdardottir is unique in presenting a vision of both – a claustrophobic panorama. Her novels have a very Icelandic feel to them and they tell very personal stories but they are also universal, relevant, significant. Cage is a satisfying read whether you are looking for that sense of locale or something that echoes the themes and concerns of American, European and British crime writing. So Sigardardottir’s style defies easy classification but be in no doubt this is both noir and an insightful social critique.
Agla is in her cell in Hólmsheidi prison, drowning in the silence, one month to her release on remand for the second half of her sentence. She’s been ground down, even her anger has dissipated, she feels drained, resigned. She has made her decision to kill herself, she rips up the bed sheet for a rope, ties it to the radiator and around her neck, she’s calm, at peace, she fits a plastic bag over her head. Things go dark.
Anton has a plan, he takes fifteen-year-old Gunnar along for the robbery because he has a moped. They cut a hole in the fence and steal a box of dynamite from the work’s shed. Gunnar doesn’t know what Anton is up to. There’s a lot of talk about Muslims and terror plots on Radio Edda. Anton is jealous of his girlfriend Julia’s friendship with a Muslim chef where she works.
Maria scrapes by with her own little online news agency. She has established a link between Agla and shady businessman Ingimar Magnusson. Ingimar refused to answer Maria’s questions about Icelandic aluminium interests, he doesn’t think she’s got the clout to make something of the story so he ignores her. Maria turns to Agla.
Maria is angry, they won’t let her see Agla, who is ‘indisposed’:
“I’m an investigative journalist and I demand to know why prisoner Agla Margeirsdottir isn’t available for a previously agreed visit. . .”
“Sweetheart, this isn’t Guantanamo Bay. We have a duty of confidentiality regarding the health of inmates. . .”
Agla wakes in the hospital feeling humiliated and depressed, every kindness is a dagger to the heart. But then there’s Elisa, a drug mule, a pawn in Ingimar’s game, Agla takes her under her wing. Then she gets a visit from George Beck representing a large American drinks company, they want to hire Agla because of her links to Ingimar, cheaper aluminium could knock millions off their costs. Maria and Agla team up to investigate Ingimar’s links to the aluminium trade.
Following on the themes of the financial crisis and drug dealing explored in Snare and Trap, Cage also tackles the rise in extremism. The world has changed very little and the system has learned nothing as big business continues to ignore rules and laws in the pursuit of profits. Why is it only ordinary people who expected to stick to the rules?
The taut but emotionally aware writing and clever interweaving of the plot keep the pace lively. Sigardardottir draws well defined, rounded characters with problems in their lives, not all related to being caught up in crime – there is an emotional depth to their stories that make this a superior read. Cage is a novel about survival, about scheming, it’s about self-preservation and about clinging to a vestige of decency in a screwed up world. Superbly translated by Quentin Bates, who knows the language, the country, the people and crime writing intimately.
Cage is a pacy thriller; you will find yourself invested in the story.
Paul Burke 5/4
Cage by Lilja Sigurdardottir
Orenda Books 9781912374496 pbk Oct 2019