Monday, October 3, 2011

Untangling knotted plots in Nesbo's The Redbreast

             Reading Norwegian mystery writer Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast is like opening a jewelry box, finding several knotted necklaces and spending hours untangling them: frustrating.
               I  begin easily shifting:
·        From a Norwegian toll barrier on  November 1, 1999, where a visiting US President and his entourage are about to pass through;
·        To an Oslo courtroom on October 5 where Sverre Olsen, a Neo Nazi is about to be sentenced;
·        To a street outside a doctor’s office (October  5) where an old man has just been told he will soon die;
·        To the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where Norwegian officials are planning surveillance (Oct. 5);
·        To the palace gardens where a Pakistani boy meets the old man and they exchange a meaningful conversation (also Oct. 5);
·        To police headquarters where detective Harry Hole and his partner discuss losing a court case to Crime Division  Bjarne Moller’s office (Oct. 9) where he assigns Harry  to security detail for the President’s visit;
·        and  then back again to the toll booth (Nov. 1);

I am okay with this – even though I will later wonder if all of this set up and prelude was necessary. (If I were in a kinder mood, I would see this beginning as structurally tidy front bookend for a similar scene at the end.)   This minor flashback in the prelude prepares me for part two which flips back to 1942 to a trench of Norwegian soldiers (Daniel Gudeson, Gudbrand  Johansen,  Sindre Faulke, Edvard Mosken and  Hallgrim Dale) who are fighting for the Germans against the Russians on the Eastern front in Leningrad, then back to Oslo 1999 where the surviving former soldiers are now in their 80s. The old man is plotting something very bad. He makes contact in a pizza shop with Olsen and arranges to buy a very high-powered unusual gun.  Olsen is only the go-between. Someone mysterious is the gun dealer.
Dominant plot lines begin to emerge. Hole assigned to Security, starts investigating unusual gun shell casings found at a practice spot. The ammunition is not for hunting game in Norway.  His former partner Ellen is assigned to work with Tom de Waller, a racist cop. Some of the old soldiers, who returned to Norway only to be treated as traitors, are murdered.  Hole starts investigating their lives. Switch back to 1942 where one of the old soldiers, (but which one?) meets the love of his life while convalescing in a Vienna hospital and plots to escape with her.  Hole also meets a woman who could become the love of his life – she’s so attractive he’s reduced to near speechlessness.    But there are a few more characters each with a story of his own: Even Juul, former Resistance member and current   historian  who  writes about such issues as “Conditions  for fascism  seen in the light of increasing unemployment in Western Europe,”  Andreas  Hochner, an arms dealer in South Africa, et. al.
You get the point. Too many intersecting characters. Too many tangled plot lines.
I feel confused, then lost.  I flip back and reread.  I sort, take notes, and list each name on my bookmark. I make up a way to pronounce each Norwegian name to ensure I do not read over it  --  practices I use when I read  foreign novels with many characters.  Nevertheless, the characters – particularly the soldiers ­­­­­-- keep morphing into each other in my mind (which is what is what happens in the novel, but I don’t know it.)
 I will not give up. I soldier on.
             Complexity becomes convolution. The repeating patterns I loved so much in Nemesis annoy me here. The old man’s identity and motives stay concealed through 400 of the 500 pages until finally, we get told the story all over again -- in a cohesive form, a diary that explains it all. Perhaps retelling is the only way to put the story back together again.
           One suspenseful technique— missed or cut off telephone calls in which the caller fails to name names  -- didn’t seem to be crafted parallelism, but only an overused  and easy gimmick.  When I get to the suggestion of multiple personalities as a possible explanation, I feel tricked. While layered plotting in “Nemesis” appeared brilliant to me, The Redbreast’s seems contrived.
            I am not completely alone. When I started being irritated, I scanned reviews to see if others concurred.  I fall into a small minority. The Redbreast is loved by many who rate it on websites.  Moreover it won the Glass Key Award for the Best Nordic Crime Novel, a prestigious award in Northern Europe, and Norwegian readers voted it the best crime novel of all time.  (I wonder if Norwegian readers would have an easier time given familiarity with place, character names and culture).
From the reviews I discovered that factual errors having to do with the death penalty in South Africa and the mechanics of guns used and Secret Service procedures detract from the novel’s authenticity.
          What I did like: I find Nesbo to be a good writer. He goes for the big, important themes and underscores them with motifs. He introduces The Redbreast, the robin, of the title in an opening quotation from a legend about a compassionate bird removing a thorn from the Christ on the cross.  In the first chapter Hole and Ellen see a redbreast and discuss its dilemma: migrating south or taking a risk and sticking around. If it’s a mild winter, the bird gets the best nesting places. If it’s harsh, it may die.   Then Nesbo  allows birds and the theme to flit throughout the book.
           He uses a lot of parallel structures resulting in deeply layered stories, my kind of books.  Several characters, like the Redbreast bird, face pivotal dilemmas, life-changing decisions and have to live with the consequences. Men make decisions about whom to fight, which side to take and how and when to return. Women make decisions about whom to submit to and whom to protect.  Tough decisions in times when manipulation and betrayal is rife and others dictate what’s fair in love and war.
            I loved the way Nesbo captured love.  What’s a good war story without a convalescing soldier falling for his nurse? What’s a good mystery without the hero falling for a beautiful woman? Magnetic attraction reduces Hole to adolescent awkwardness.
            Finally, I liked what I learned about Norway’s role in World War II and repercussion today.  It gave me a context for last summer’s camp massacre.  I am reminded how little I understand about the rest of the world.  Though I lived abroad for a year during formative years, I’ve only travelled as a tourist since. Much of my adult life has been sheltered in homogeneous Maine, the second whitest state (with 95.2 % behind Vermont at 95.3) in the nation according to the 2010 census.  Fascism and immigration have been minor issues for me.  So I am grateful for what I learn from my armchair travels.
There are times in history when people make choices, though all options seem bad. Repercussions can extend through generations.   Often those times coincide with economic challenges, waves of unemployment, immigration and political polarization, conditions that face both Europe and the United States.
 Enthusiastic after discovering “Nemesis,” I followed up “The Redbreast,” its antecedent. I am glad I read the books out of order because I might have quit.  Instead, I’m still drawn to the series as there’s still a crime to be solved:  a murder of one very close to Harry Hole. Next up for crime stories: Devil’s Star.


  1. remarkable insight. well proofread.

  2. I will run right out and buy this book now.

  3. Gordo,
    Thanks for your comments. You don't have to buy it. I will lend it to you. It's sitting on the chair right behind you.

  4. I admire your persistence, Barbara. I probably would have deserted, though I always feel guilty about doing so. I know what you mean about a novel's power to illuminate the history that puts current events in context. I always say I learn more about the world from fiction than from most history books. I like the 'what I liked' paragraphs--if your wonderful prose didn't already show it, it reveals that you are an experienced writer, and a fair critic. xo

  5. It's rare that I don't finish a book I've started. I've read lots of not so good books and seen many mediocre plays and learned a lot from writing about them. I am now determined only to read and write about those that draw me into them in some way. I've thought about using a rating system, but I think it's unlikely I would ever go below say 3 in a 5 point scale.

  6. I like the comparison to a tangled necklace.

  7. Barbara, I just found your blog straight up when I searched "andreas hochner jo nesbo" after just finishing the book over in Brisbane, Australia! I didn't want to go back searching to be reminded who he was - and now I am reminded from your piece - thanks! I was already trying to remember to go back and work out who Barbara? was from around p500?? However I loved your idea of how you used your bookmark as I had been thinking that I should keep some kind of notes in future when plots get thick but then you can't always know when you need to ahead of time! But in the end maybe we just need to let go as we shouldn't really need to keep 'audit' of characters as we go along, should we : - ) I think I feel ok that it was intriguing the way some details were just beyond my reach to stretch my brain.
    Yes I reacted exactly as you did and remarked to my partner as soon as I came to the multiple personality suggestion that I felt very let down!! I wanted to be able to work out who it was after all these pages. Nevertheless I did find it a good page turner and will pass it straight on to my bookclub in case anyone hasn't got a copy yet for this month's book! I too loved your comment about the tangled necklace : - ) Thanks for the tip about the series as I could do them now with the encouragement of your article.

    1. Thank you for reading my blog. I started the bookmark use years ago when I was teaching students and they were having difficulty with multiple character books. I found it useful for me too!! Usually I have some sense of what I need to note - even just a name and a page number will do.

    2. Thank you... just finished listening to this and I had to go back and forth. It was mu first Nesbo and I'm glad there are better ones. I was curious about "The PrinceL but I guess he will appear again. Your review nails it...

  8. Brilliant review Barbara

    1. Thank you Anonymous, whoever, wherever you are.

  9. thanks barbara i had been quite confused with all the characters and at one stage felt i hadnt followed plot well enough, but soldiered on, its good to read your take on book

  10. I think we had similar reactions. However, I've now read just about everything available to me by Nesbo, and I am a great fan.