Someone to Watch Over Me

  • By Yrsa Sigurdardóttir; translated by Philip Roughton
  • Minotaur Books
  • 336 pp.

A stiff protagonist and action left off the page undermine this thriller.

In Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s latest thriller, Someone to Watch Over Me, Icelandic attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is tasked with discovering the truth behind a fire that took the lives of five people at an assisted-living facility for the mentally disabled. Jakob, a Down syndrome patient at the facility, was convicted of the crime, but a fellow patient believes Jakob is innocent and hires Thóra to prove it.

Sigurdardóttir uses Thóra’s naivety to educate the reader about the cruelty those confined to these places face, and that attention is welcome. American audiences, particularly those familiar with the contempt and challenges that the disabled must overcome, will latch on to these details.

And it’s hard not to sympathize at the author’s description of a patient almost entirely afflicted with paralysis, with the exception of her eyes, which she uses to communicate via cards held up by a therapist: “The therapist had told Thóra that the few people who’d been injured in this way always started by spelling out the same thing from the cards: Kill me.”

Similarly, the catastrophic, wide-reaching effects of the Icelandic financial recession will resonate with readers here, and Sigurdardóttir does a thorough job of detailing that economic shift and smartly tying it into her story. “It was as if Iceland’s castles,” the author writes, in a pretty moment of prose, “were no longer in the sky but had crash-landed there on the outskirts of the city.”

But getting to these moments is wearisome, given the methodical pace and exhausting amount of exposition. Alongside that, the text is long-winded in places. Take this bit of dialogue from Thóra: “It may well be that later on it will become clear that everything was concluded precisely as it should have been, but until then I must acquaint myself to the best of my ability with everything that might suggest the existence of reasonable doubt concerning Jakob’s guilt.”

Thóra is an attorney but, even for a lawyer, that wording is tedious and untrue to dialogue outside of a prepared statement or speech. Unfortunately, part of that stiffness ties into Thóra’s character. Thriller fans used to the American antihero are going to be confused by her lack of flaws. It’s not that a heroic protagonist has to embody some of the darker traits of the criminals he or she chases; far from it.

But nothing about Thóra is particularly interesting, although it seems that passing mentions to a bikini wax she wants are supposed to give her personality (they don’t). The thing is, Thóra actually has an interesting life. Her parents, financially reckless and hindered by the recession, move back in with her; she has two children from a past relationship; and her boyfriend is going through his own professional difficulties. Much of this material could be mined for comedy or drama, but isn’t, and it has little to no bearing on Thóra or the novel.

Similarly, and frustratingly, the novel’s action also takes place off the page. Chases, attacks, and killings are all described after the fact — a grievous neglect of the old writer’s rule: “Show, don’t tell.” Some of this might seem welcome in comparison to the full-frontal American approach to sex and violence, but it doesn’t benefit the story.

A reader doesn’t necessarily need to view a gory death or see bodies slapping back and forth in bed, but a skilled writer knows how to use those moments, or hints at those moments, to elevate tension and stir depths. I don’t doubt that Sigurdardóttir has the ability to do so, but the mistaken decision to avoid these emotional scenes and situations cripples her book.

E.A. Aymar’s debut thriller, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, was published by Black Opal Books in November 2013. His column, Decisions & Revisions, appears monthly in the Independent.

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