It’s a crime story, but the crime is in the background; the real story is the effect of bereavement on Bess, Pia Juul’s protagonist. When first we meet Bess, she goes to bed shortly after her partner Halland. When she wakes, it’s to discover that Halland has been shot dead. For the rest of the novella, Bess has to live with the aftermath of Halland’s murder, and hope that she can come to some sort of new equilibrium in life.
The Murder of Halland is a fine character study (and Martin Aitken’s translation from the Danish is equally so) which, like a kaleidoscope, keeps turning to reveal something new. One of our first discoveries is that Bess’s personal life is not as happy and untroubled as we may have supposed. She left her husband and daughter behind for Halland, and is still not on best terms with her family (she says she has her mother’s number on speed dial ‘to warn me if she rang’ [p. 16]). But nor was she fully at ease with Halland – Bess loved him, but he could be possessive (‘if I hadn’t been besotted by him, staying would have pointless’ [p. 17]).
As the novella progresses, it becomes clear just how much of a hole Halland’s death has left in Bess’s life. She wants to keep his memory to herself, and treats interlopers with hostility. ‘He’s not your family!’ she tells Pernille, the foster-daughter of Halland’s sister – though, as the two never married, Bess wasn’t technically Halland’s family either; and she hasn’t exactly been concerned with her own family, either. That cry against Pernille is more about Bess than Halland. Likewise, she feels threatened by things which disrupt her image of Halland; like the office he rented in Pernille’s house, whose contents Bess puzzles over (including a poster for La Retour de Martin Guerre, perhaps a symbol of Bess’s not knowing her partner as well as she thought).
But it’s also the case that we as readers don’t know Bess as well as we might think. She is at pains to stress that she’s not telling us everything, but just what is she not saying? Bess’s motivations are not always clear, and sometimes we can see a gap between her words and reality (for example, the impression we gain of Bess’s daughter Abby from her descriptions is not what we see when Abby arrives in person). We’re left with a sense of incompleteness (though not, I don’t think, an unsatisfactory one), just as Bess feels the gaps in her life.
The murder itself is never fully cleared up (though, as I said at the outset, the murder is not the point); but there’s a sense towards the end that Bess has found her way forward. Whether we know everything she went through to get there is another matter – but Juul gives us a fascinating journey all the same.
Video interview with Pia Juul
The publisher, Peirene Press
Some other reviews of The Murder of Halland: Andrew Blackman; Little Words; Reading Matters; The Little Reader Library.