Reptile Memoirs by Silje Ulstein

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Reptile Memoirs by Silje Ulstein front cover

Translated by Alison McCullough — With a Burmese python as one of its narrators Reptile Memoirs sets itself apart from your traditional Nordic noir fare, but despite its unconventional approach this debut novel is one of the most riveting and consuming psychological thrillers of 2022 thus far.

It’s 2017 in Kristiansund, Norway. Mariam Lind and her 11-year-old daughter, Iben, are doing some shopping at a local supermarket when they have a disagreement about which magazine Iben wants. Mariam refuses to give in and takes off in a huff, leaving her daughter behind. Furious about the incident and frustrated with her claustrophobic life as a mother and politician’s trophy-wife, she heads for the fjords on a long drive. When she returns home late in the evening, Iben isn’t there…

Detective Roe Olsvik, a police officer close to retirement, is new to the Kristiansund police department. He’s no longer passionate about his work, but is bitter and cynical about life after he lost his daughter more than a decade ago. When Roe is assigned Iben’s case, old feelings are triggered and he takes the investigation more personal than he should. His behaviour and especially his antagonistic interrogation of Mariam raises a red flag with his colleagues, Ronja and Birte. They assume the incident unearthed some unresolved trauma connected to the death of Roe’s daughter. Behind his back, the two women start chasing down leads and interviewing a potential witnesses who saw Iben talking to a man in a car.

Back in 2003, Liv shares a basement flat in Ålesund with Egil and Ingvar. Their life consists mostly of parties, drinking and doing recreational drugs. After watching a nature documentary Liv becomes obsessed with owning a pet Burmese python. Soon, a metre-long Burmese python called Nero is a permanent tenant and Liv develops a worryingly intimate relationship with the reptile. Nero makes Liv feel safe and protected – something she lacked growing up with a mother who disappeared for months on end. Liv’s feelings for the snake are admittedly bizarre, but a troubling relationship with her brother, Patrick, as a child might be to blame for her misplaced infatuation.

Nero becomes a replacement for the love Liv craves, but he also becomes the swallower of her burdens. She identifies with his cold-bloodedness, using people only to get what she needs from them. Liv grows to believe that Nero speaks to her. Initially she is intrigued and flattered by this imaginary secret bond between them, but as the snake grows so does his appetite and Liv can no longer satisfy his demands. As Nero gets bigger, the tension builds. He becomes a physical manifestation of secrets which can no longer be hidden. The result is an always-present, ominous feeling of claustrophobia coiling itself around the reader.

Juxtaposed with Liv’s infatuation is Nero’s cold narration. He only sees her as ‘the warm woman’, a basic heat source who provides his food. Other than that there’s no bond. At most she’s an experiment, a living thing he observes, commenting on how she doesn’t get along with other humans. It’s also a reminder of our ill-conceived wish to domesticate animals or attribute human characteristics to them when they are in fact only animals out to survive.

These two very different storylines and their characters are destined to intersect as you read Reptile Memoirs and it will take all the grey cells of your primate brain to keep track of the various characters and the dual timelines. If you don’t pay attention you might miss crucial information, but when the pieces eventually fit together the result is a giddy feeling of satisfaction. There’s little predictability here but the way author Silje O Ulstein pulls it all together should be lauded.

All the main characters have experienced something traumatic in their lives. Their attempts to run away from it, shed their skins and start anew haven’t been particularly successful and in the end they can only face up to the past. Reptile Memoirs, like so many other Scandinavian crime novels, deals with family secrets and abuse, but Ulstein puts an unexpected fresh twist on it. It’s shocking, at times gruesome, somewhat surreal, but ultimately it’s one hell of a read.

For another dark read set in Norway, try The Boy in the Headlights by Samuel Bjork. or a novel in Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, where occasionally the story is told from unusual points of view.

Grove UK

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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