Translated by Quentin Bates — The Dancer is Icelandic author Óskar Guðmundsson’s second book translated into English, following The Commandments in 2021. It’s a fast-paced psychological thriller linked to the world of dance. Tony has trained as a dancer since childhood with lessons from his mother. The book covers a little over a week in Tony’s life. As Dicken’s would say, ”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” It is a week when he has the opportunity to achieve a dance dream. It is also a week when his world implodes and Tony loses his grasp on reality.
The book is set in Reykjavik in 1982. The time period is a clever choice on the author’s part as he does not need to deal with technology complicating his plot. If it had been set in the present time, dancers would be posting clips on TikTok, Tony would be on Tinder or some other dating app to explore his sexuality and the police would have much faster access to information.
The Dancer opens with a flash forward scene set on a snowy hillside near Reykjavik where an eerie dance is being performed. The only people present are the unidentified victim and the perpetrator along with an instrument of torture and death. The fact that the perpetrator designed and created the instrument shows us that a great deal of thought and planning went into the murder.
The act is not done in the heat of the moment and as a result is very dark. If you prefer cosy mysteries with limited acts of violence or gore, this book may be too dark for you. On the other hand, if you are interested in understanding how an individual can become a monster who seemingly accepts violence or gore as part of life, read on.
Life has not been kind to Tony. He has been raised by his alcoholic single mother, Gunnhildur. When her desire to be a dancer never happened, she focused on training Tony to dance. Her methods of instruction were twisted and cruel. Tony did learn to dance but at great physical and emotional cost. There has been a shift in their relationship as she is disabled and depends on Tony to provide her with home care.
The key relationships, which are also the only long-term connections that Tony has with anyone, are with his mother and grandfather. Sadly, they are not a cohesive family unit. There is an awkward family dynamic between his mother and grandfather. Tony is stuck in the middle of this dysfunctional group with no understanding of the reasons for the distance between the two of them. His grandfather, Jón, owns a struggling carpentry shop where Tony is employed. Even though the business is no longer profitable, Jon ensures that Tony gets paid.
On the day when Tony has a chance meeting with some dancers that may open some doors for him, a body is found on a hillside in Reykjavik. An autopsy confirms that it has been there at least six months. Two members of the police force are assigned to the case. Valdimar is nearing the end of his career and Ylfa is relatively new to the job. There is an enjoyable dynamic between them, and here the police procedural elements of the book come to the fore.
The Dance moves along at a very brisk pace as a result of Óskar Guðmundsson’s direct style of writing and short chapters. Even though the book is under 250 pages, it is packed with content that will keep you engaged. Óskar has the ability to create visual images in your mind that will pull you into The Dancer, even when they have a nightmarish element.
The Dancer is a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit. It is written for those interested in the psychology and the motivation behind a crime. Although the crimes committed in The Dancer are brutal and dark, by sharing elements of the character’s past, Óskar helps us understand how some people may become monsters. At times, you may even feel some sympathy for the characters in spite of the horrific things they have done. A skilful writer, Óskar demonstrates his ability to evoke those feelings with this latest novel in translation.
Norwegian author Karin Fossum is one of the best when it comes to the criminal mind. See her Inspector Sejer books.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars