I expected to enjoy this bloody crime drama, the premise is really intriguing, so I was pleased that it is fast paced and exciting. The cold chill The Girl Without Skin generates isn’t all down to the Arctic climate, things get nasty, very nasty. This is Nordic noir that matches the most gruesome standards of the genre, a complex atmospheric and menacing read. However, Nordbo is more than just an entertainer, he is an original writer. What I didn’t expect, and what raises the novel above a good read, is the way the story is enmeshed in the culture and politics of Greenland and the relationship with Denmark. That social context gives the novel a real grounding in reality and that is the thing I loved most about this thriller. Make no mistake, it’s a nail biting murder mystery, the action takes over and the story hurtles to a riveting denouement, but it’s also an insight into a part of the world that we don’t normally get to see.
There are echoes of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow in this 2014-set Greenland thriller. The Girl Without Skin explores some of the cultural and political issues Høeg raised twenty years ago but I think Nordbo is more incisive (and a much better thrill writer). This is a noirish murder mystery that keeps you guessing but it’s not for the feint hearted, The Girl Without Skin is a Gruesome and grisly tale. This is not violence and cruelty for the sake of titilation though. There are events that will horrify you, graphic descriptions of the aftermath of brutal crimes, but it ultimately makes sense as you become acquainted with the background to the violence. Nordbo tackles the racism and sense of superiority of Danish rule, the misunderstanding of the Inuit culture. Moving self-sufficient families away from their villages into high-rise tower blocks in Nuuk, for example, was a disastrous attempt at social engineering. However, he does not shy away from the uncomfortable truths about life on Greenland, this is a land with an appalling level of child abuse. Nordbo is good on setting; you feel the cold, the fear, the isolation and the loneliness in this Arctic set thriller. Despite the grisly tale that will send chills down your spine it’s clear that Nordbo has an affection for the island, its people and culture*. Greenland hasn’t featured much in crime fiction, not even Nordic noir. The setting; the cultural, political and economic tensions on Greenland all form part of this intricately plotted story of murder and revenge.
The prologue to The Girl Without Skin leave us in no doubt of the dark territory we are stepping into, a man is brutally slain. Then we witness a car crash; the haunting image of a pregnant woman dying, witnessed by her helpless husband, Matthew Cave, a journalist, the survivor. It’s a recurring nightmare for Matthew. Since he has thrown himself wholeheartedly into his work covering the political debates about Greenland’s independence, finances and the links with Denmark. A mummified body, believed to be Viking, has been found by hunters, it’s potentially a unique find. Matthew, a photographer and a team of research scientists arrive at the scene. They have to leave the frozen corpse protected by tent overnight. The next morning the photographer finds his studio ransacked, all his cameras, laptops, and memory sticks stolen. The pair fly back to the scene to redo the photos for the story but as the helicopter circles they see the body of the police guard, Aqqalu, in the snow. The policeman was gutted and flayed with a flensing knife, the Viking is gone. A witness to the killer dumping evidence is similarly murdered. As the story is embargoed Mathew looks into four murders that happened decades earlier in 1973, around the same time two girls disappeared. Matthew finds some striking similarities with the new crimes. Meanwhile, the police arrest Tupaarnaq Siegstad, a murderer recently returned from jail in Denmark. Matthew takes up Tupaarnaq’s cause and the pair are drawn together in a dangerous investigation of a terrible historical crime that might help catch a killer in the present…
A few years ago I was hunting around for any Nordic crime fiction I could find in English, it felt new and fresh; there were only a handful of authors out there but they were testing the boundaries of noir. Now there is much more choice and not everything Nordic is good. I like a novel that is more than a rattling good murder mystery and The Girl Without Skin is that. Nordbo is a Danish author who has been living in Greenland for several years, his deep understanding of the place and the people really come across in this novel. This translation by Charlotte Barslund brilliantly captures this chilling story.
*Greenland, nine times the land mass of Britain has a population of just over 56,000 people, the vast majority of whom are Inuit. It is a self-governed territory of Denmark, with a distinct culture and lifestyle.
Paul Burke 4/4
The Girl Without Skin by Mads Peder Nordbo
Text Publishing 9781911231226 pbk Feb 2019