Ashes to ashes: Ragnar Jonasson’s ‘Black Out’

I discovered Ragnar Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series (translated into English by Quentin Bates) earlier this year. Frustrated by the lack of winter snow here in grey, wet, West Wales, I revelled in the extreme weather and unforgiving landscape that contributed so intensely to the claustrophobic tension in both Snowblind and NightblindWhen I discovered that another of the Dark Iceland series was due to be published, my anticipation was too great to squirrel it away as an antidote to next winter’s disappointment.

Rather than the relentless darkness and icy bleakness of the previous two novels, the atmospheric menace in Blackout comes from the threat of volcanic activity. Dense, acrid ash clouds blanket huge swathes of the island following a mild eruption, and there is heightened anxiety that this could trigger more violent activity from Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active and unpredictable volcanos.

We were both about twenty when it happened. There was no warning and suddenly the air was filled with ash and the sky went black….It’s unnerving when it gets dark as suddenly as that, when you least expect it….I don’t feel at ease in the dark anymore. I always feel that there’s something sinister on the prowl – something that keeps itself hidden when it’s light. But when the darkness falls…that’s when that word always comes to mind, “blackout”.

The spread of the ash cloud across the south and west of Iceland means that Reykjavik has been brought to an asthma-inducing standstill. The north of the island has been impacted less, although that could easily alter with a change in wind direction. During the machinations of this national crisis, a murdered body is discovered by a tourist in a remote part of northern Iceland.

Once again, Ari Thór Arason and his police colleagues in nearby Siglufjörður investigate the murder. The action in Black Out follows that of Snowblind,  and Ari Thór is mourning the break up of his long distance relationship with Kristín following his brief fling with Ugla, his erstwhile piano teacher. In a twist inspired by his own experience, working as a reporter for the Icelandic Broadcasting Service, Jónasson includes a parallel investigation by a young Reykjavik-based news reporter called Ísrún. When the story of the murdered body breaks, she heads north, escaping the oppressive ash cloud, hoping to land a scoop for her news channel. However, she also has personal reasons for delving into the mystery that are only revealed as the story reaches its thrilling denouement.

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Black Out is an expertly wrought crime thriller. Every suspect has a secret, and Jónasson carefully lays a multitude of clues, many leading up blind alleys. The plot is tight and pacey, the terror building palpably as the novel progresses, culminating in a heart-stopping, race against time finale. All the while, the looming presence of such a hauntingly beautiful yet volatile landscape vividly evokes a sense of vast empty space in the novel creating a pleasing stark contrast to the claustrophobic tension.

For some reason, vulcanicity and seismology ignited my imagination at school – I even toyed with the idea of becoming a Geologist for a while, avidly collecting rocks, and marvelling at how landscapes could be dramatically shaped by weaknesses in the earth’s crust. To read a novel shaped by such environmental factors gave me a thoroughly geeky satisfaction, and I was delighted to discover that one of my own review quotes was printed in the front pages of Black Out – how cool is that? With two of the five dark Iceland novels already garnering huge acclaim in the UK,  Ragnar Jónasson has delivered what is sure to be another spectacular triumph, and I look forward to the arrival of Rupture, also by Orenda Books, which is due to be published in 2017.

With all this talk of ash clouds, I couldn’t resist ending this post with the very wondrous and under-rated band, Ash. Tenuous link aside, turn up the volume, kickoff your shoes and enjoy your very own pop-up early noughties disco. You’re welcome.

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