The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl (tr. Don Bartlett) #BookReview #BlogTour

In Oslo in 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In great haste, she escapes to Sweden whilst the rest of her family is deported to Auschwitz. In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, Ester’s childhood best friend. A relationship develops between them, but ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire. 
And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter Turid. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive... 
Written with Dahl’s trademark characterisation and clever plotting, The Courier sees one of Norway’s most critically- acclaimed authors at his best, as he takes on one of the most horrifying periods of modern history. With its sophisticated storytelling and elegant prose, this stunning and compelling wartime thriller is reminiscent of the writing of John Le Carré and William Boyd. 

It is such an honour to be hosting the blog tour for The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl today along with the fabulous Shaz's Book Blog. Many thanks to the author, Orenda Books and Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me and for my advance copy of the novel.

The Courier opens in 2015 with the sudden reappearance of a bracelet which has been missing for almost fifty years; this mystery triggers a story which switches for the most part between 1942 and 1967 with the occasional chapter set in 2015 and is one of the most emotional and unexpected thrillers I remember reading for some time.
In 1942, Norway had been under German occupation since 1940 with a collaborating pro-Nazi puppet government, the Quisling regime. Ester is a courier, delivering papers for the resistance but she makes a decision which will come to haunt her for years as it becomes ominously clear that the small Jewish population of the country are facing increasing animosity and violence. When she realises that a routine assignment has been compromised, she has little choice but to flee over the border to Sweden, leaving behind her father, mother and grandmother. She also leaves her childhood friend, Åse and her baby daughter, Turid but is unexpectedly reunited with Åse's husband, Gerhard who has also crossed the border after being accused of killing his wife, potentially putting members of the resistance in danger. Falkum is tormented by his situation, he feels his skills are wasted as he is forced to hide in cheap hotels and is desperate to move to England or to cross back over the border into Norway to rejoin the fight against the Germans. A bond develops between Ester and Gerhard, probably driven more by their shared loss and the heightened risk of danger than by any genuine feelings but there is one particularly touching scene in which nothing is really said and yet the sense of longing and desire is expressed with a raw poignancy.
The chapters set in Oslo in 1967 see Ester unexpectedly reunited with faces from her war years. Gerhard was thought to have perished in a house fire in 1942 and his reappearance causes shock waves among those who knew him previously. He claims he wants to be reunited with his daughter after living in America for many years but why hasn't he tried before and what has finally brought him back to Norway? Ester isn't the only person questioning his motives for coming back - Turid's adoptive father, Erik is violently opposed to her meeting her birth father and Sverre Fenstad, a leading resistance figure also reacts with concern. As the novel progresses, with chapters constantly switching between 1942 and 1967, it gradually becomes apparent that wartime decisions and secrets continue to cast their long shadow on all concerned. However, although it is the events set during WW2 which are the catalyst for the action, the little cultural references from both eras peppered throughout the book help to create a truly authentic sense of time and place.
In a novel with such a strong character-driven narrative, it is undoubtedly Ester who is the most compelling figure. The contrast between the facets of her personality are fascinating - she is at once strong and resilient yet vulnerable and conflicted by guilt and doubt. Falkum is an enigma throughout; seemingly driven by anger, there is a frightening sense of unpredictable danger about him. The truth about why he left and his reasons for returning are finally revealed but there are number of twists and turns which  kept me hooked and constantly reassessing my suspicions.
The Courier is a complex spy thriller which demands concentration but rewards its readers with a beautifully structured, tense and affecting story. It is a sharp reminder that beyond the fields of conflict, there are brutal decisions made in war and none more so than in the shadowy world of espionage. More importantly though; Ester's family may be a fictional one but almost 800 Norwegian Jews died as a result of the Holocaust and The Courier is a painful yet necessary warning of just what humans are capable of inflicting on one another - something which is particularly pertinent given the current rise in antisemitism across Europe. A word here too, for Don Bartlett's sensitive translation which has opened this superb book to English-speaking readers. Intelligent, intriguing and moving, I highly recommend it.

The Courier is published by Orenda Books, purchasing links can be found here.

Don't miss the rest of the blog tour, details are below.

About the Author

One of the fathers of the Nordic Noir genre, Kjell Ola Dahl was born in 1958 in Gjøvik. He made his debut in 1993, and has since published eleven novels, the most prominent of which is a series of police procedurals cum psychological thrillers (Oslo Detectives series) featuring investigators Gunnarstranda and Frølich. In 2000 he won the Riverton Prize for The Last Fix and he won both the prestigious Brage and Riverton Prizes for The Courier in 2015. His work has been published in 14 countries, and he lives in Oslo.

About the Translator

Don Bartlett lives with his family in a village in Norfolk. He completed an MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia in 2000 and has since worked with a wide variety of Danish and Norwegian authors, including Jo Nesbø and Karl Ove Knausgård. He has previously translated The Consorts of Death and Cold Hearts in the Varg Veum series.


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