This week I was prompted to read “The Bird Tribunal” by Agnes Ravatn after hearing part of an episode on “Book at Bedtime” on Radio 4. It occupied a week and 2 days’ worth of episodes, with the rest of the second week being filled with Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds”. I’m not sure what’s happening with the book-scheduling on Radio 4, but I’m pretty sure there’s someone with a grudge against humanity, or at least Radio 4 listeners, involved. Or perhaps the purpose of Book at Bedtime has changed, no longer to lull people to sleep, but deliberately designed to keep people sat bolt upright in bed alert to the tiniest sound of impending menace?
Major spoiler alert – if you don’t want to know too much about the plot, click away now. The plot revolves round a young woman, Alliss, who has left her job as a TV presenter, for reasons that become clear later, to work as a housekeeper/ gardener for a man living in a remote part of Norway whose wife is “away”. The truth is revealed sparingly, doled out like a trail of breadcrumbs leading into the forest, to reveal how two damaged characters end up in each other’s orbit, with almost no one else to intervene. The prose is spare and simple, but the tension rarely lets up. The imbalance of power between the two is made obvious from the start, when he insists that she wait while he eats, and then she can eat afterwards. He appears to hold all the power, but as in any domestic noir, the narrator, ostensibly powerless, finds her capacity to act by the end. There are overtones of Bluebeard – she must never go inside his locked workshop – and Norse myths, but there is a reason why the misanthropic Radio 4 scheduler linked this work to one by du Maurier. The parallels with “Rebecca” are strong enough that this could be said to be a modern retelling, with one or two twists.