The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn
Thor A. Larsen
Agnes Ravatn is a new Norwegian novelist for me and after reading her first novel translated into English, I look forward to future works by this up and coming young author.
The Bird Tribunal (Fugletribunalet) was published in Norway in 2013 when Ravatn, a newspaper columnist and journalist, was 30. It is her second novel, and fourth book—two books of her essays have also been published in Norway—but the first to be translated into English (in 2017). The translation was subsidized by a grant from several English-language booksellers and the book a candidate for the Dublin Literary Award, both reasons why I chose to read this new novel.
The novel doesn’t disappoint. Ravatn is very effective in keeping you tightly engaged, seeking answers to the mysteries arising as we follow the main character, Allis Hagtorn, as she takes a position as cook and garden tender for a single man, Sigurd Bagge, whose home is in a very isolated area in a forest, adjacent to the fjord. Sigurd’s wife is supposedly away for an extended period, and he needs help while he works at home building boats. Due to an extremely embarrassing personal event at her job as TV journalist, Allis wants to totally escape from her former public image, and she realizes that goal when she starts working for Sigurd. It does not take long before Allis realizes how isolated she is preparing meals and gardening. Sigurd, who seems very depressed, only speaks a couple of words to her, taking his meals separately from Allis.
This general situation provides no verbal exchange with anyone, except when Allis goes to a local grocery store on her bike. There is very little dialogue throughout the book, which consists mostly of the mental gyration Allis undergoes trying to figure out where Mrs. Bagge is and when she is returning. Ravatn is very effective in keeping the reader engaged in Allis’s quagmire. In addition to the psychological drama, the descriptive language of the setting’s plants, birds, and fjord helped create a strong sense of the isolated but beautiful setting.
As time goes by, the isolation eases somewhat and opens a path for Allis to learn, little by little, about Sigurd and his wife. Allis suspected there were secrets Sigurd did not wish to share. Hence, Allis was always apprehensive and concerned, but as she stayed on, becoming closer with Sigurd, she could picture a life for the two of them together in the future.
Of course, life is never a fairy tale. This book’s final pages create a very dramatic twist to the tale’s hopeful end. Along with her excellent descriptive language, Agnes Ravatn has a fine understanding of human psychology. A must-read for anyone interested in modern Norwegian literature!
Born in Stavanger, Thor A. Larsen immigrated to New York City with his parents in 1948. Now retired from a 40-year career as physicist and engineer, Thor draws and paints, and writes travel and arts articles for a local publication. He’s been married to Arlene for 49 years, and they have two adult children and three grandsons.
This article originally appeared in the June 28, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.