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The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn
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The Bird Tribunal

by Agnes Ravatn

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I kept coming across rave reviews for this book after it was translated from Norwegian so I decided to check it out. I am not sorry to have read it.

Allis Hagtorn takes a job as a live-in cook and gardener for Sigurd Bagge. Wanting to escape her life which involved some type of public scandal, she is happy to retreat to an isolated house (“liberated from the watchful gaze of others, free from their idle chit-chat”) where she has virtually no interaction with anyone other than her employer. And initially, there is even very little communication with him; he is a taciturn man who barely acknowledges her existence. Slowly, however, an awkward relationship develops between them, but though they make revelations, both keep secrets. The mysteries surrounding her boss fascinate Allis but they also leave her discomfited.

There is a mounting, pervasive sense of dread throughout. Allis is largely cut off from the world; other than Sigurd, she speaks only to a surly shopkeeper who makes cryptic and sneering comments that unsettle Allis. Sigurd’s wife is away but no explanation is given for her extended absence. There’s a locked room. And there’s the brooding, mercurial Sigurd whose abrupt mood swings create a sense of danger. Even nature (a silent forest, dead grass and shrubbery, malevolent gulls, invading mice, a sky the colour of blood) seems menacing.

The two characters are complex. Sigurd is obviously enigmatic and volatile, but he also seems manipulative. He pulls Allis closer by engaging her in conversation but then pushes her away, as if trying to keep her confused and unsettled: “His expression . . . always scrutinizing, as if to demonstrate that I was his, that he could decide where I could and couldn’t go.” And some of his behaviour and statements can easily be interpreted as threatening: “There’s no guarantee of anything” and “She won’t be troubling you anymore.” Why does he say that there were “quite a few” responses to his job posting and later suggest Allis was the only applicant? Though Allis becomes obsessed with him, there is little that makes Sigurd an attractive person.

Allis, however, is also not an admirable person. She describes herself as some who “always started with the same unbridled enthusiasm before swiftly giving up. I possessed no sense of perseverance, no will to accomplish anything in full.” She believes she has something within her “that prevented me from being faithful.” She mentions, “my irrational pride prevented me from ever taking the initiative when it came to reconciliation, ever.” When she learns that a man is a manual labourer, his lower status matters to her; she even admits her shallowness: “Did he realize just how superficial I was?” She acknowledges that she was “willing to reduce to rubble” the life of someone “who had never been anything but good to me.” Like Sigurd, she also seems manipulative. She is desperate for male attention and does what she can to entice Sigurd. Furthermore, she sees the job as a chance at a new life; she wants to transform herself: “There was salvation to be found, I could create a sense of self, mould a congruous identity in which none of the old parts of me could be found.” She is not beyond using the situation for her own ulterior motives.

Allis is the narrator but she is hardly reliable. She claims that Sigurd doesn’t make eye contact: “He didn’t look me in the eye but instead stared past me” and “He didn’t seem particularly bothered about making eye contact with me as he spoke.” Later, however, she says to her, “You’ve never looked me in the eye. . . . You don’t look me in the eye, you just gaze straight past me.” So who doesn’t make eye contact? Is Sigurd strange or is she? At one point, Sigurd says, “If I were as strange as you are . . . You’re not normal.” Then there’s the discussion about swimming. Early on, Allis insists, “I can swim” but on two other occasions, she repeats, “I don’t swim.”

Then there are some thoughts that she mentions that are downright strange: “I could play any role, it was my greatest talent” and “Did [Sigurd’s wife] have to come back? She did, of course. But no, she couldn’t” and “As long as I thought of her as no more than a shopkeeper – not as an individual, but as part of some vague, hostile force – then it would be easier to kill her, I thought” and “[mundane tasks] anchor the stream of thoughts that otherwise drifted so easily to darker places.”

I enjoyed the references to Norse mythology which unify the novel and clarify the ending. When Allis first meets Sigurd, she is reminded of Balder, but it seems she sees herself as this Norse god who “brings about the destruction of the world, but that allows for a newer, better world to emerge.” She seems to see Sigurd as Loki “who has no one” and she says, like Loki’s wife, she would help Sigurd atone if he were somehow being punished. In a third discussion of the legend, she mentions that “Old guilt is destroyed by fire and swallowed by the sea. . . . Perhaps . . . guilt requires atonement, perhaps it needs to be wiped out if a new world is to emerge.” It is not coincidental that the phrase “corpses nestled among its feathers” is repeated at the end with its implication that “Maybe . . . even in the new world there is potential for evil.” (And surely it is not by chance that a dress of “shimmering, blue-green material almost the colour of a mallard’s head” fits Allis perfectly and reminds the reader of Sigurd’s dream of a tribunal which featured a woman with a mallard’s head of “astonishingly beautiful shimmering green”?)

This is not your average run-of-the-mill psychological thriller. Its layers actually invite a second reading.

Note: Please check out my reader's blog (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski). ( )
  Schatje | Feb 26, 2018 |
Woa...a book that some say is as good as The Collector by John Fowles, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier or even dare I breath it Jane Eyre with echoes of Rochester and the fair Jane! Winner of The English Pen Award (promoting new and exciting literature from around the world) and quoted on its front cover as being "chillingly atmosphere and hauntingly beautiful! The Bird Tribunal has won two awards in Norway: the NRK P2 Listener's Novel Prize and the Youth Critic's Award..." a taut, exquisitely written psychological thriller that builds to a shocking, dramatic crescendo" Well this is one reader that thought it was an overpriced piece of balderdash!

It is an effrontery in any way to compare such mediocre prose to such classic authors as Fowles, Bronte and du Maurier. Allis Hagtorn, presenter on Norwegian TV, and it would appear gaining promotion by sleeping her way to the top has decided on a change of direction/career (I can hear her colleagues breathing a sigh of relief) She takes a job as housekeeper to the surly, abrupt moody but hauntingly dashing Sigurd Bagge. It would appear that his wife is not in residence at the moment and even Allis, after a very short time in service can understand why she would want to be free from him..."a neurosis-inducing, hostile husband. It was hardly surprising his wife had made herself scarce." So Allis spends her time preparing meals, tending the garden and acting as a type of agony aunt to the deeply morose, "dark and stocky" with those cute little curls....Mr Bagge (very well named as he seems to come with a lot of access impassioned baggage) Now the beautiful Allis is not without her own emotional impairment and the scene is now set for these two beautiful lost, neglected, misunderstood souls to console each other and maybe (if only for the reader) find within themselves some inner contentment ....(ah reminds me of a demented Catherine running across the moors in search of her one true love Heathcliff...yes lets include Wuthering Heights in the mix)

So after some 250 pages of "will they or wont they" "did they or could they" the dramatic final scene is set for some sensational disclosure. What is the truth behind Allis's sudden departure? Where is the much referred to Mrs Bagge? Did something criminal befall the fair Nor Bagge? All will be revealed dear reader in the final exciting (yawn....zzzzz) paragraphs. This book could have been easily concluded in a paragraph....scarlet woman meets contemplative man, they talk, the truth is revealed...end of story. What an over hyped piece of nonsensical dross still all those 5 stars reviews can't be wrong? you read you decide..................... ( )
  runner56 | Apr 17, 2017 |
The Bird Tribunal – A haunting tale

The Bird Tribunal from Norwegian writer Agnes Ravatn is a stunning introduction to the writer who has delivered a breath-taking book. This may be a short story and a winner of the English Pen award, but it delivers massive punches throughout the book for the reader and with a structured build up completely gets under your skin.

TV presenter Allis Hagtorn leaves her partner and career, she is running away from things, and decides to go in to voluntary exile as a housekeeper in a remote house on an isolated fjord. Her job does not just include being the housekeeper and gardener, but she is also taking care of Sigurd Bagge. He is not an old person as she was expecting but a man if 44 years old, who is married, who rarely talks to Allis.

All Allis knows that Sigurd’s wife is away touring and that he is awaiting her return, and then what happens to her she has no idea. But there is something strange and unsettling about Sigurd, she can tell he his keeping a secret but no idea as to what it is. Allis comes across, at first, as very self-centred especially as she is acting as the story narrator.

As Allis gets to grips with her new life looking after Sigurd, strange things to do happen but nothing that will cause concern. At times Allis comes across as maddening as she is not conventional and not easily likable and it is as if Sigurd is the male version of her.

Both know they are keeping secrets from each other, especially as Sigurd has a habit of disappearing, sometimes for hours other times for days. Allis has been told she is not welcome to enter Sigurd bedroom or workroom, and the curiosity drives her crazy. As the story progresses we see a formation of a relationship develop, but there are some serious questions raised as the reader is being psychologically teased throughout.

This is a deeply compelling, and at the same time quite unusual story that will keep you gripped throughout. The reader is not sure what will happen but you are drawn in and Allis is a compelling character and Sigurd comes across as eccentric at best, weird at worst. The story and ending is intriguing as you really do not know how this will end, this is truly Norwegian Noir at its eerie best. It can be unsettling, and the translation bring out the best of the haunting prose. This really is a masterclass of suspense and psychological thriller at its best, that will send chills down your spine. ( )
1 vote atticusfinch1048 | Sep 28, 2016 |
Showing 3 of 3
«Fugletribunalet» er et tett og skummelt kammerspill - et spenningsfullt og erotisk møte mellom en kvinne og en mann. ...
Nyansene i teksten er blitt flere, og det vi kan kanskje kalle undertrykket er blitt større, men uten at Ravatn - takk og lov for det - gir helt slipp på sitt komiske talent.
added by annek49 | editNRK, Knut Hoem (Sep 17, 2013)
 
Intervju med forfatteren om boken
added by annek49 | editDagbladet, Anders Fjellberg (Jul 31, 2013)
 
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Two people in exile. Two secrets. As the past tightens its grip, there may be no escape. TV presenter Allis Hagtorn leaves her partner and her job to take voluntary exile in a remote house on an isolated fjord. But her new job as housekeeper and gardener is not all that it seems, and her silent, surly employer, 44-year-old Sigurd Bagge, is not the old man she expected. As they await the return of his wife from her travels, their silent, uneasy encounters develop into a chilling, obsessive relationship, and it becomes clear that atonement for past sins may not be enough. Haunting, consuming and powerful, The Bird Tribunal is a taut, exquisitely written psychological thriller that builds to a shocking, dramatic crescendo that will leave you breathless.… (more)

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