I Remember You is my first experience with thriller writer Yrsa Sigurđardóttir and I was incredibly impressed with this novel which deftly mixes the rational crime story with the supernatural ghost story. In I Remember You, she takes inspiration from the heritage of Icelandic literature, funnelling ancient ghost stories into an exploration of modern Icelandic society, exploring social care, financial upheaval and modern relationships, all tied up in a satisfying detective yarn.
There are two main plot-lines in the novel featured in alternating chapters. One features a group of ill-prepared city friends who have bought an abandoned house in the remote fishing village of Hesteyri, with the plan to renovate it and rent it out in the summer. The three friends, a couple and their widowed friend have little skills and even less money and their decision to come out and do work in the height of winter is seen as a ridiculous one by the local boat man who takes them across to the island. However, the work and the isolation become the least of their worries as the find two crosses ripped from graves on their land and a strange, dishevelled and possibly ghostly boy appears, intent on making them leave, by any means possible.
Meanwhile, in the closest town Ísaforþur, across the lake, a psychiatrist called Freyr is treating a troubled old woman in a nursing home and looking into the cause of a case of vandalism at the local primary school. As he investigates, he becomes convinced that the vandalism and a series of strange deaths among a group of people in their sixties might all be linked to the disappearance of his own son three years previously.
Bisecting between the two stories, Sigurdardóttir juxtaposes the progress of Freyr’s investigation into the schoolroom vandalism and the similarities between it and another case sixty years previously with the deterioration of the relationships and mental health of the three renovators. Their ghostly encounters with the young boy become more physically dangerous and challenging and their fear and isolation reveals some unwelcome secrets that they have been trying to keep hidden.
To say that the plot of I Remember You is convoluted is an understatement. As well as the two main storylines, there is a plot strand featuring a group of friends sixty years previously, the mystery of the disappearance of Freyr’s son and a love interest. I would hold this against the book more were it not for the fact that the manner in which Sigurdardóttir ties all these strands together is nothing short of miraculous. To say any more would be to spoil the book, which comes to a chilling and satisfying conclusion with real precision and skill.
“The devil’s afoot. Keep that in mind,” she said…
“I fear things are going to go badly for you. Very badly.”
As well as being a satisfying thriller, I Remember You is genuinely creepy. I’m a big horror fan and I don’t scare easily, but the manner in which Sigurdardóttir builds tension through the use of sound and, in particular, smell is incredibly skilled and very eerie. This is a horror story with very little gore and is all the better for it and the skilled translation of Philip Roughton loses none of the terrifying atmosphere.
Having said all that, there are some issues and not everything works here. The book is probably a bit too long and faces some pacing issues in the middle, where the supernatural events come thick but not particularly fast. There is a little bit too much plot and some of the strands, including a potential love interest for Freyr and a visit from a medium, could have been axed with little consequence.
However, where I Remember You excels is in atmosphere and plotting. It is also surprisingly moving, exploring the notion that the supernatural hauntings have come about only when the vulnerable have been abandoned by the people and institutions that were meant to care for them.
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