Book review: Murder is a family affair in “The Cold Song”

the cold song

Thor A. Larsen
Fishkill, N.Y.

The fifth novel by Linn Ullmann received many accolades around the world, including a place on the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2014. Ullmann’s very effective writing skill, which I enjoyed in Stella Descending is here in spades. I share with other readers that once you pick up this book, it is very difficult to put down. The story takes place on an island and the pace moves quickly, jumping back and forth in time, but maintaining a meaningful direction. The book is a psychological study of a family over several years, with focus on a major family event, the 75th birthday party for the matriarch.

As with Stella Descending, there is a tragedy that happens early in the book and Ullmann teases the reader throughout the book as to who caused this tragedy. Unfortunately, the author leaves the reader to wonder which one of a number of potential culprits are to blame. The tragedy was that Milla, a summer nanny caring for Siri and Jon’s two children, was killed, her body discovered by two boys buried in a shallow grave. As the story unfolds, the bulk of the story occurs two years before this gruesome discovery.

Siri is an owner of two restaurants, one in Oslo and one on the island, where she and family spend the summer. Jon is a writer. The children are Alma and Liv. Their nanny, Milla, is an attractive girl of 19. Jon, in addition to being a writer, enjoys his freedom to wander and has a roaming eye and a number of liaisons. Of course, with a young attractive nanny in the house, there evolved mutual interests between Jon and Milla.

Due to Jon’s infidelities over the years and his interest in Milla, serious tensions between Siri and Jon increased. Siri and her mother, Jenny, the owner of a big estate on the island, had a long-term conflict stemming from the tragic death of Siri’s younger brother when she was four years old.

Siri has planned the party for many people at her mother’s estate. However, the mother does not want the party, causing her to drink heavily and take the car out drunk with her granddaughter along for the ride.

As we try to decipher who killed Milla the night of the party, there are a number of possibilities. Was it the boy she met at a local pub after she left the party? Or perhaps Jenny, while driving intoxicated, struck Milla while she was walking home from the pub. Perhaps Jenny’s caretaker, Irma, buried the body after the accident—Irma was very good at caring for Jenny in every aspect of her life. Then, Jon had some texts with Milla late in the evening and had been out walking his dog. Or could it be Siri, who simply couldn’t stand Milla flirting with her husband?

Ullmann develops the personalities of each of the main characters very crisply, along with their relationships with each other and with Milla. It is the reader’s task to surmise the culprit. So, as you rush through the book puzzling out who committed the crime, you will be very surprised at the ending.

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 Jan. 9, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.