“Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.” (Colette)

Mallika’s annual Book and Author Anniversaries post alerted me to the fact that today is the 150th anniversary of Colette’s  birthday, and the perfect prompt for me to get two of her books out of the TBR (in Women’s Press editions which pleases me – how I regret clearing out loads of my The Women’s Press books when I was trying to streamline before a move one time. Never get rid of books kids – better to die under a toppling pile than live with regret 😉 )

Firstly, Duo and it’s short sequel Le Toutounier (1934 & 1939; trans. Margaret Crosland 1974). Duo follows the discovery by Michel and immediate aftermath of his wife Alice’s short-lived affair with a colleague. They are on holiday in the south of France, somewhat isolated and under the watchful eye of Michel’s family retainer Maria. The novel is primarily dialogue between the couple as they try and decide what remains for them.

Colette’s love of the natural world is very much in evidence as she captures their holiday home and Alice’s feelings of suffocation:

“On the poplars the golden bronze of the new leaves still wrongfully occupied the place of the green. A crabapple tree, its white petals lined with bright red, had defeated the somewhat sickly Judas tree and the syringas in their attempt to escape the destructive shade of the shiny aucubas, extended their slender branches and their butter white stars through the broad grasping leaves, which were mottled like snakes.”

Her precise descriptions of people and their mannerisms also suit this tale especially well, expertly capturing the tension and careful watchfulness between two people fearful of their disintegrating relationship.

“He caressed her with a few crude words, which she heard with a quiver of her eyelashes, as though he had shaken a bunch of flowers over her. They both accepted these exchanges, which were caused by chance, travel, a sudden change of season.”

Michel and Alice don’t tear each other apart, but at the same time their relationship seems doomed. However, the precision and containment of the story to a few days in a specific place, doesn’t make for a heavy or oppressive read. Colette’s humour is always present, with some surprising phrases:

“Out of modesty the servant placed a saucepan lid over the milk.”

During Duo, we learn something of Alice’s family, her sisters Colombe, Hermine and Bizoute.

“When I think about my family as much as that, it’s because I’m finding Michel terribly boring.”

In Le Toutounier she visits their stuffy, smoke-filled Paris apartment with the titular “huge, indestructible sofa of English origin, battered down like a forest road in the rainy season.”

It’s a short novel (80 pages) and I can see why it was put in the same volume as Duo as I think it is best read following on from its predecessor, forming a portrait of an interlude in Alice’s life.

Bizoute is away from home, leaving Colombe and Hermine together with their complicated love lives. Neither of them are with available men and the situation escalates. But the focus in Le Toutounier is not on relationships between the sexes but rather between the sisters, and what it means for women in a family to be close to one another. As so often, Colette focuses her sensual descriptions on women, showing appreciation but not sentimentality:

“The fine woollen dressing gown with a pattern of embossed stitching fell over her quivering shoulders, and it’s pink glow rose to her cheeks, where the makeup had lost its delicate morning colour beneath successive layers of powder.”

Secondly, Break of Day (1928, trans. Enid McLeod 1949) which nowadays would probably be called autofiction, occupying a place between biography and outright fiction. ‘Colette’ spends the summer in Provence, contemplating her past and wondering about the future. All her preoccupations are here – the natural world, animals:

“After dinner I mustn’t forget to irrigate the little runnels that surround the melons, and to water by hand the balsams, phlox and dahlias, and the young tangerine trees, which haven’t yet got roots long enough to drink unaided in the depths of the earth, or strength to break into leaf without help, under the steady scorching of the heavens. The young tangerine trees, planted … for whom? I don’t know. Perhaps for me. The cats will spring sideways at the months when by ten the air is blue as a morning glory. The pair of Japanese hens, perching drowsily on the arm of a rustic arm chair, will chirp like birds in a nest. The dogs, already far away from this world, will be thinking of the coming dawn, and I shall have the choice of a book, bed, or the coast road”

Men and women:

“My true friends have always given me that supreme proof of devotion, a spontaneous aversion for the man I loved.”

“When a man’s glance is following certain household preparations, especially those for a meal, there is apt to be a look on his face that combines religious attention, boredom and fear.”

Her mother:

“On an autumn morning she was the first and only one to see herself reflected in the first disc of ephemeral ice in the well bucket, before her nail cracked it.”

“She would, alas, have judged us plainly, with that divine cruelty of hers which was innocent of wrath.”

Break of Day is fairly plotless save for a slight drama with two young people, but not quite stream of consciousness either, written in a more structured style. If you enjoy Colette’s writing then this is a little gem, but definitely not one to read when you want to be pulled along by a cracking yarn.

Overall the sense is of Colette (author/character) coming to terms with the last part of her life, with aging and with what remains. It isn’t sad but it has a melancholy quality, although I sensed few regrets and an acceptance of how her life had been lived so far and how it would continue.

“Everything is much as it was in the first years of my life, and little by little I recognised the road back.”

I loved all of these reads. It’s been a while since I picked up Colette and I wondered why I’d left it so long. She’s funny, incisive, precise, sensual, and absolutely in command of her own voice. There’s no-one like her.

To end, a 1970s performance to match my 1970s editions, about the breaking of day:  

“There is no more sagacious animal than the Icelandic horse.” (Jules Verne)

For my second contribution to Annabel’s Nordic FINDS month I’m looking at the second and third instalments in Ragnar Jónasson’s Hidden Iceland series, The Island and The Mist.

I know I enjoyed the first instalment of this series featuring police detective Hulda Hermannsdóttir, The Darkness, but I can’t remember anything about it. Thankfully you don’t need to have read it (or remember it) to enjoy the sequels.

These are quick, straightforward reads. Sometimes I find the phrasing a bit too straightforward with some clichéd phrases – I don’t know if this is Jónasson’s style or a translation decision – but Hulda is an appealing lead and the emphasis is on the mystery not sensationalist gore, which is very welcome. I’m not a big reader of contemporary crime so I don’t want an overly convoluted plot and I want characters that behave like real people in real (admittedly extreme) circumstances, both which The Island and The Mist deliver.

The Island (2016, trans. Victoria Cribb 2019) starts with a brief, highly unnerving prologue in 1988, before taking us back a year to 1987. Benedikt and his unnamed girlfriend are staying at her family’s holiday home:

“He was going to enjoy their stay, this weekend adventure in the middle of nowhere. The sense of isolation was enhanced by the thought that nobody knew they were there; they had a whole valley to themselves. It really was like a dream.”

This being a crime novel, anything idyllic fills the reader with a sense of deep foreboding and sure enough, the girl is found murdered. Hulda is a CID detective, tenacious and thorough, but she’s up against a traditional, sexist system:  

“Her boss, Snorri, was an old school detective, quiet yet firm, with an aversion to modern technology”

He’s kind, but he tells her in no uncertain terms that her colleague Lýdur will be promoted above her, what with him having the obligatory Y chromosome and all. We see Lýdur take some very dubious decisions in his investigation into the girl’s murder.

Fast forward to 1997: Hulda has experienced a horrific family tragedy, and is living alone in a small, expensive flat in Reykjavik. Four friends – Dagur, Alexandra, Klara and (eek!) Benedikt are having a reunion on a remote island:

It was her first visit to the Westman Islands, the little archipelago of some fifteen volcanic islands and innumerable stacks and skerries that jutted dramatically out of the sea off the south coast of Iceland. […] Now, Heimaey was home to a thriving fishing industry but Alexandra could see the volcanic cone, still brown and ominously bare of vegetation, brooding above the white buildings of the town.

Only three of them will return.

Hulda, now middle-aged and wondering what her career has left to offer her, is dispatched to investigate. Inevitably she has to dig up what happened ten years previously and whether the motive for the latest murder lies in the past. An additional complication is that Lýdur is now her boss with his own reasons for wanting Hulda to reach conclusions as quickly and thoughtlessly as he does. But Hulda is her own woman and we’re never in any doubt she’ll find her way to the truth.

Although I did guess whodunit, there was an additional twist that took me by surprise and was genuinely a bit shocking.

If I rarely read contemporary crime, I never read contemporary thrillers, but this is what The Mist (2017, trans. Victoria Cribb 2020) turned out to be, and I really enjoyed it. I think it helped that it’s a quick read; I probably couldn’t have sustained a long, tense story. The first two thirds of the novel are the deeply tense unfolding of events, and the last third is Hulda piecing together the crime scene in a fairly straightforward way.

It’s set around the same time as the opening events of The Island – Christmas 1987/February 1988 – and so at first I wondered if the UK publishing of these books was out of order, in the same way as Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series, but looking at publication dates it seems he decided to move back and forth in time with Hulda.

Hulda has hit a dead-end with her investigation of a young woman’s disappearance, and so she is sent to investigate a crime scene in a remote farmhouse in the east of the country. We’re then taken back to two months previously: Erla and Einar live in the farmhouse on land that Einar’s family have farmed for generations. Erla loves her husband but has always missed city life in Reykjavik.

“She was overwhelmed by the familiar feeling of emptiness that assailed her whenever something ran out and she knew she had no chance of replacing it. She was stranded here. To describe the feeling as emptiness didn’t really do it justice; it would be true to say she felt almost like a prisoner up here in the wilderness.

All talk of claustrophobia was forbidden on farm, though; it was a feeling they had to ignore, because otherwise it could so easily have become unbearable.


Erla and Einar’s familiar Christmas routine is interrupted by the arrival of a stranger, Leó. How he has reached them and what he is doing stranded in the middle of nowhere during a blizzard at a time when nearly everyone is at home, he can’t really explain. To send him away would be to send him to his death, and so Einar invites him to stay, despite Erla’s deep mistrust of the unknown man.

“It would be a white Christmas, as usual. Stiflingly white. And now this intruder had entered their peaceful home and poisoned the atmosphere. You couldn’t describe it any other way. He’d poisoned it. The wind whined outside – hardly a harbinger of peace on earth and goodwill to all men.”

The strain builds between the three people as they spend the night together in the remote, old-fashioned farmhouse, with electricity and phone lines both down and the snow relentlessly falling. Jónasson expertly maintains the tension, exacerbated by the persistent, inhospitable weather.

“In winter, not a day passed when she didn’t witness something that sent a shiver down her spine. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but the isolation, the silence, the damned darkness, they all combined to amplify every creak of the floorboards and walls, the moaning of the wind, the flicker of light and shadow, to the extent that she sometimes wondered if maybe she should believe in ghosts after all; if maybe that would make life bearable.”

Despite the minor reservations I mentioned earlier I do enjoy Jónasson’s writing. Hulda is believable and although she’s a-detective-with-a-tragic-past-who’s-overinvested-in-their-work she’s not destructive or self-pitying. She’s honest and humane and likable. In The Mist we learn more about what happened to bring her to the circumstances of The Island.

“But then that’s what her job was like at times, a game played out in the grey borderlands between day and night. No victory was ever sweet enough; her work was never really done. She could expect no praise or reward. The riddle had been solved to general indifference.”

But a large part of the appeal for me is that Jónasson is great at evoking the Icelandic landscape. I never feel like the stories could occur anywhere else.

“Ellidaey appeared ahead, looking just like the pictures she’d seen; the single white speck shining amidst the green pasture gradually resolving itself into a house. Behind it the grassy slope reared up like a crest of a wave. As they drew closer, the black cliffs with their splashes of white bird droppings didn’t look as if they offered the visitor anyway up from the sea.”

To end, one of my favourite songs, which conveniently happens to be about mist (and also shares a name with my friend’s childhood hamster) :

“A great doctor must have a huge heart and a distended aorta through which pumps a vast lake of compassion and human kindness.” (Adam Kay)

I really want to increase my blogging in 2023 – as I’m an incredibly strong-willed person who always achieves any goal they set, I have absolutely no doubt I will achieve this aim 😀

Anyway, the wonderful reading events that take place are always an incentive to help me on my way, and in January Annabel runs her enticing Nordic FINDS month.

This meant that I have finally pulled a book from the TBR that has been languishing there for years: The Visit of the Royal Physician by Swedish author Per Olov Enquist (1999 trans. Tiina Nunnally 2001). A historical novel set in the 18th-century Danish courts, it tells the story of King Christian VII’s mental ill health, his marriage to Caroline Mathilde (sister to George III) and her affair with the titular German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee.

TVOTRP is hugely lauded, winning the August prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This meant I went in with unfairly high expectations and at first I wasn’t sure this novel was for me. I suppose TVOTRP would be classed as a documentary novel, and initially I found this style distancing. However, by the end I was very much involved in this sad tale of people sacrificed to political power struggles where there is no room for humanity.

Even if the historical events are unfamiliar, the reader knows it will end with the execution of Struensee, as this is where the novel begins. We’re then taken back to his arrival at court, a man of the Enlightenment, viewed with some degree of suspicion by those resistant to change.

King Frederik V dies in his forties, and there is a vivid scene of him on his deathbed with his son, being abusive until the end. Christian is sixteen when he becomes King Christian VII and he is already struggling to comprehend reality.

“Christian explained, in a stubborn attempt to make sense of things, that he understood the court to be a theatre, that he had to learn his lines, and that he would be punished if he didn’t know them by heart.”

But was he one person or two?”

Enquist demonstrates so clearly that it would be some sort miracle if Christian managed to stay well in the environment of the court. He is not only abused by his family but by the courtiers; he is physically and mentally tortured.

Caroline Mathilde is 15 when they marry.

“Afterwards everyone agreed that it was unfortunate that she did indeed have talents. If the proper assessment had been made from the outset, namely that she possessed some talents, then the entire catastrophe might have been averted.

But no one could have predicted this.”

These teenagers are not expected to rule Denmark. They are expected to be figureheads and provide heirs, and not get in the way of the power-hungry politicians that surround them. When Struensee arrives in court, he poses a huge threat despite not appearing to want power at all. Firstly, he genuinely cares about Christian:

“It was understood that something had happened. The German doctor with the blonde hair, the quick but wary smile and the kindly eyes, had become somebody. Since he had no title and could not be placed within a precise hierarchy, this caused uneasiness.

Attempts were made to decipher him. He was not easy to decipher. He was friendly, discreet, and refused to make use of his power, or at least what was considered to be power.

People didn’t understand him.”

Secondly, he is a man of the Enlightenment, deeply threatening to Puritan courtiers like the advisor Guldberg, who is slowly growing his influence. Thirdly, he sleeps with the Queen:

“Christian, Caroline Mathilde, Struensee. Those three.

They seem to be observing each other with curiosity and suspicion. The court observed them too. As they observed the court. Everyone seemed to be waiting.”

The tension builds as the reader knows this situation will absolutely not be tolerated. And it seems such a travesty. The King is happy and cared for; the Queen is happy and fulfilled; the person taking decisions on behalf of the ruler is progressive, liberal, and trying to improve the situation of the masses. Why not let it continue?

Struensee is not naïve and he is filled with a sense of foreboding. Meanwhile, Caroline Mathilde seems to believe they can outwit the malevolent forces that are closing in…

“Her analysis surprised him.

He thought that her extremely lucid, extremely brutal view of the mechanisms of power had been born at the English court. No, she told him, I lived in a cloister. Then where had she learned all this? She was not one of those that Brandt, with some scorn, used to call ‘the female schemers’.

Struensee understood that she saw a different kind of pattern to his.”

The style of TVOTRP is really interesting. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a documentary style, but with an omniscient narrator so there is space given to the feelings and motivations of all the characters. The sentences are generally choppy, but often also poetic. Enquist balances these opposing approaches expertly. I never quite got past that initial distance I felt and so this stopped me absolutely loving the novel, but I did think it was an excellent and compassionate exploration of the pressures of public life and the dangers for those trying to change entrenched power structures.

Although not a depressing novel, it did seem desperately sad, for all concerned.

“The revolution that Struensee initiated was quickly stopped. It took only a few weeks for everything to revert to the way it was before, or to even earlier times. It was as if his 632 decrees, issued during the two years known as the ‘Struensee era’ were paper swallows, some which landed, while others were still hovering low over the surface of the field and hadn’t yet managed to alight on the Danish landscape.”

To end, I saw A Royal Affair (which tells the same story but isn’t an adaptation of this novel) when it came out in 2012. I don’t remember much of it now but I do remember enjoying it and thinking all three leads were excellent. From this trailer I would say Christian is portrayed less sympathetically than Enquist saw him, but it definitely looks worth a re-watch: