The advertisement is simple and honest: “Teacher wanted at the edge of the world.” And for Una, the main character of Ragnar Jonasson’s The Girl Who Died, it is the perfect enticement to leave her drab life behind and start a new chapter.
The “edge of the world” is actually the isolated fishing village of Skálar, located on the northeastern tip of Iceland. But with her father recently passed away, no job and no love interest to keep her in the larger city of Reykjavík, a season away is just the thing Una needs for a complete reset.
At first, the idyllic community of just 10 people, including two young girls whom Una is hired to tutor for the year, seems like something out of a storybook. It’s not long, however, before the remoteness of the community and the tight-lipped nature of its residents begin to weigh on her, forcing her to question if she’s made a serious mistake. When she begins to see a young girl’s visage in the residence where she’s staying and hears the ghost girl singing an old lullaby, things take on an even more ominous tone.
The mystery of what exactly is going on in Skálar will hook Jonasson’s readers as much as it does Una, and the author expertly builds intrigue and suspense with each passing page. The sudden death of one of Una’s students during a Christmas musical and the disappearance of a mysterious stranger in town further complicates things. And when Una begins asking too many questions, the locals turn the tables and leave her to wonder if her alcoholism has her jumping at shadows.
Known for his grittier Dark Iceland series of crime thrillers, Jonasson opts for a more moody, surreal tone in The Girl Who Died. While the novel, translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb, lacks his usual pileup of bodies and violence, the slow-building sense of dread and unease Jonasson creates more than compensates.