Written by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, translated by Elizabeth Dyssegaard — This is the third in the bestselling Nina Borg series by Danish wonder team Kaaberbøl and Friis. Natasha Doroshenko, a Ukrainian national in Denmark, is on the run from the law. But that’s just the beginning of her problems. While her daughter Katerina is being held by the authorities, a mysterious group of organised criminals led by an ancient matriarch, whom Natasha brands ‘the witch’, is out to harm both of them. Natasha is wanted for the murder of her husband, a journalist in Russia. Her only ally in this strange new land is Red Cross nurse Nina Borg, whom she met in a refugee crisis centre.
Two events set the story hurtling into nail-biting motion. Natasha escapes custody before she can be sentenced for the murder of her first husband. To complicated things, her second Danish husband is murdered while she is on the loose, and she is the prime suspect there too. Meanwhile, before we can figure out the identity of the mysterious criminals and their connection to Natasha, they kidnap her daughter Katerina from the refugee camp. This suspenseful novel turns into a thriller as we witness Natasha’s desperate acts and survival skills in her role as both hunter and hunted.
When Nina calls in a favour from trusted cop Søren to look in to the matter of the murders, it appears both the husbands’ corpses have a similar signature – gangster-style executions. While this calls into question Natasha’s guilt, it doesn’t mean she’s not dangerous. She will stop at nothing to find her daughter. Even well-intentioned Nina Borg might be in danger as she strives to reunite Natasha and her daughter.
Fans of the Nina Borg series (of which this is the 3rd) know that she is a champion of the oppressed and exploited. In her role as chronic do-gooder, she plunges headlong into the plight of others even at the expense of her own safety. Her current involvement with the inmates of a refugee camp, where she meets Natasha and Katerina, is typical. Her commitment to them, unfortunately, is proportional to her lack of control over her own family situation. In acknowledgment of this, we learn that she has divorced her husband and ceded custody of her son to him, a dilemma that she agonises over constantly.
Amidst the drama of Natasha’s ordeal and Nina’s efforts to resolve the situation, we are suddenly flung 70 years into the past and plunked down into Stalin-era Ukraine, where neighbour informs on neighbour amidst gnawing hunger and desperation. The drama of a village torn apart by Communism plays out parallel to present events. Olga and her highly regarded sister Oxana, the nightingale of the title who strives to be the Party’s poster child – are both forced to choose between family loyalties and the demands of the state. Horrific tragedy ensues.
The Communist drama is superb, and would make a great standalone novel. The desperation mirrored by both Natasha and Nina in the present and sisters Oxana and Olga in the past makes for compelling reading. The only problem may be that more than halfway through, the two stories are still not bridged and we are still no wiser as to exactly how the nightingale connects with the present events. However, the novel’s drama and emotional power is so pitch-perfect that the slow burn of its core mystery doesn’t necessarily hinder a very compelling read. Another strong plot element is the investigation led by the unlikely team of Danish copper Søren and his mysterious Ukrainian counterpart Babko. The two must overcome jurisdictional conflicts to solve the case by finding the link between Natasha and the Ukrainian mob, a mystery with deep and lasting ties to the distant past.
If you like strong, imperfect heroes or non-traditional Nordic detectives like Asa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson, you should enjoy this installment in the Nina Borg series, although it’s recommended you start with the first two, Boy in the Suitcase and Invisible Murder.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars