Review: Betrayal

Lilja Sigurðardóttir – Betrayal (Blog Tour)

Author Lilja Sigurðardóttir

Published by Orenda Books, paperback £8.99. Betrayal is translated by Quentin Bates. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

First, the official blurb: Burned out and traumatised by her horrifying experiences around the world, aid worker Úrsula has returned to Iceland. Unable to settle, she accepts a high-profile government role in which she hopes to make a difference again. But on her first day in the post, Úrsula promises to help a mother seeking justice for her daughter, who had been raped by a policeman, and life in high office soon becomes much more harrowing than Úrsula could ever have imagined. A homeless man is stalking her – but is he hounding her, or warning her of some danger? And the death of her father in police custody so many years rears its head once again. As Úrsula is drawn into dirty politics, facing increasingly deadly threats, the lives of her stalker, her bodyguard and even a witchlike cleaning lady intertwine. Small betrayals become large ones, and the stakes are raised ever higher…

At the Bute Noir festival in August 2019, I had the pleasure of chairing a panel that included Lilja Sigurðardóttir, who was then talking about her Reykjavik Noir trilogy, three thrillers that deal with drug smuggling and a mother’s desperation. As a panellist, she is warm, funny and thoughtful. As a writer she is all these things and so much more – aided by translator Quentin Bates, who has helped Orenda Books bring Sigurðardóttir to an English-speaking audience.

Betrayal – shortlisted last year for the Glass Key Award for best Nordic crime novel – is a standalone politically-focussed thriller set in a snowy Icelandic winter, but you don’t need to be a politics geek to enjoy it, there is plenty to hold your attention (to the point where you may need to remind yourself periodically to take a breath!). I loved the opening line, which suggests there is drama and trauma to come, and tugs at the part of me that loves classic noir, in which people make bad decisions and have to deal with the consequences: “With the benefit of hindsight, it was clear that Ursula’s promise was her downfall.”

Burned out by her life as a high-level international aid worker, including stints in Liberia and Syria that still haunt her dreams, Ursula Aradottir accepts an unexpected offer on her return to Iceland with her family: to become the Interior Minister in the country’s government. On her first day, she meets a woman who is desperate for help: her daughter, 15, has been raped by a police officer, and no-one will tell them what is happening with the case. Ursula promises to find out. Meanwhile, a homeless man, seeing Ursula’s picture in a newspaper as she accepts the keys of office, seems to remember her from many years ago, and begins to follow her, as he fears the man in the photo is a threat. In fact it is he who is deemed a threat by Ursula’s staff – especially when he gets too close for comfort in her first days on the job.

Seen from another point of view, the rape case becomes much murkier, and when crucial evidence goes missing it seems impossible to make headway. Meanwhile, Ursula receives abuse and threats about her involvement in the case and her fitness for her position, including suggestions of what should happen to her that begin at vile and end in the hands of the police. While she’s dealing with threats, and reeling from realising she knows the homeless man, which brings up memories of her father, she is also feeling guilty about giving in to temptation. Elsewhere, something – someone – is tempting the cleaner she has shared cigarette breaks with, and as we’ll see later, not everyone around Ursula has her best interests at heart. There is, in short, plenty of intrigue and as the title suggests plenty of opportunities for betrayal are being quietly set up.

It may be telescoped for fictional effect, but the portrayal of life for a woman politician – for which read: pretty much any woman in the public eye who expresses an opinion – still rings painfully true. There are insinuations about how she got the job; abuse and rape threats every time a decision is taken or statement made; advice about how she needs to dress and speak. All things men rarely have to deal with; all things that will chime with any woman reading the novel.

In some ways it’s a bold choice to put this into a crime novel, as so often the issue is dismissed and brushed aside. But in other ways it’s an obvious choice – for starters, the majority of crime readers are women, and for second I firmly believe social issues absolutely belong in crime fiction. Sexism directly affects half the world’s population, and indirectly affects many more people – here, the thrown stones have an impact on the lives of everyone around Ursula, particularly her husband and children who have not only to deal with her being absent due to work but also have their lives interrupted and fears heightened by the increasing security measures imposed as the threats continue.

The murky side of political dealings is also laid bare – a world Ursula was wholly unprepared for. She may have worked at the frontline of aid – managing a team dealing with an Ebola outbreak; helping refugees on the edge of a warzone – but this political backstabbing version of violence is something else entirely.

In the end all the layers of the narrative slide together and the combined weight of the truths crushes the corruption, but not without casualties. However, Ursula is determined that even those not charged with a crime will have to face a reckoning.

The betrayals big and small are brought into the light one by one and examined, adding texture to the narrative and often being seen from more than one viewpoint, or by the same person having a dawning realisation of the effect they are having on someone else, giving the story strength in depth. Thrills, chills and intrigue, and all presented in a deceptively easy style. It’s another triumph for Sigurðardóttir.

Icelandic crime-writer Lilja Sigurdardóttir was born in the town of Akranes in 1972 and raised in Mexico, Sweden, Spain and Iceland. An award-winning playwright, she has written four crime novels, including Snare, Trap and Cage, making up the Reykjavik Noir trilogy, which have hit bestseller lists worldwide. The film rights have been bought by Palomar Pictures in California. She lives in Reykjavík with her partner.

You can follow Lilja Sigurdardóttir on Twitter here: @lilja1972
Find her website at:
You can follow translator Quentin Bates – who is also an author in his own right – on Twitter here: @graskeggur

Check out all the reviews on the Betrayal blog tour…

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