Written by Nik Frobenius, translated by Frank Stewart — Nik Frobenius wrote the screenplay for Insomnia, a 1997 film in which a Swedish police detective investigating the murder of young girl in a small town in the far north of Norway begins to lose his grip on reality due to the 24 hour summertime sunlight. One of the main suspects is a shifty-looking author. This atmospheric film was remade by Hollywood with Christopher Nolan directing and Al Pacino and Robin Williams in starring roles in 2002. New location: Alaska.
Here in his novel Dark Branches, Frobenius takes an author as his main character and continues to explore reality, how we see it, and how we remember it. In Jo Udderman’s case it’s about the links between what he writes, how that affects other people, what goes on in his mind, and what’s actually happening to him. It’s a noir-tinged psychological mystery that starts off slightly disturbing and by three quarters of the way through has you asking ‘Is this really happening?’
Uddermann isn’t such a nice fellow, and that might be the root of his problems. He’s got the ideal set-up as an author – living with his wife Agnes and young daughter Emma on the outskirts of Oslo. The place is surrounded by trees, brooks and nature trails. It’s the house he grew up in, inherited from his parents, and it’s ideal for writing. His latest book, which talks about the adventures of his youth, has become quite popular and Uddermann is even interviewed on Norwegian TV.
Behind Agnes’ back, he’s had an affair with a woman called Katinka, the high school beauty he always fancied and who was, all those years ago, his wife’s best friend. They’ve been meeting in her cottage, by the trail he regularly jogs along for exercise. Katinka also featured in the book he’s written and now she’s been found dead in an old chest. He tries to keep the affair quiet, but Agnes finds out and eventually his cousin Jenny, who is the police investigator, also discovers his link with Katinka.
Uddermann becomes a suspect, and Agnes leaves him. All along there seems to be a growing threat against the family. First, a Barbie doll with a severed head. Later, a dead dog in the garden. Further into the story there’s a break-in where Uddermann’s wife and daughter are taking refuge. Eventually, a bizarre manuscript turns up written in Jo Uddermann’s style but he swears he’s not the author. By this point Frobenius is toying not only with his protagonist’s fragile grip on reality, but pushing the focus of suspicion here and there.
There’s another crucial character in the mix. Could George Nymann be Jo Uddermann’s nemesis? Nymann, with his shock of unnaturally white hair, was Uddermann’s school fiend when they were early teens but something terrible happened between them and it involved Katinka. This story is the basis of Jo Uddermann’s successful book and though he thought Nymann was dead, the man seems to be back in town after being released from jail. Or is he? Because there’s only been one, brief sighting of him. Uddermann becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator as he slips between pin-sharp lucidity and complete, rambling paranoia. Jenny and her police colleagues have a hard time believing him, and he scares many of the other characters he encounters.
Frobenius’ writing is captivating and at times intense. The dialogue is nuanced and the switches between Jo Uddermann’s current predicament and the past deeds that have brought it about are well handled. Though the story grows quite complex, everything is clear. Everything, that is, except our main character’s true state of mind. That really is what Dark Branches is about, and Katinka’s murder is somewhat peripheral. The main problem is that Uddermann’s not quite likeable enough to have you rooting for him. In fact, you might even end up hoping he gets what’s coming to him and that might be what the author intended with this clever novel. It’s one that will have you reading to the end to find out, but your heart won’t be pounding for Jo Uddermann’s safety.
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CFL Rating: 4 Stars