Yrsa Sigurdardottir has a day job as a civil engineer, a professional background that seems surprising for a best-selling author of procedural mysteries. And it’s not often that a successful crime writer will shift gears from a popular series to test-drive — with a confidence well-earned — a stand-alone ghost story.
But Sigurdardottir’s background should clue you in to the great strength of the gripping I REMEMBER YOU: This novel has a plot structure tooled with a rigorous, even ruthless clockwork precision that snaps like a bear trap and, chapter by chapter, ratchets up the anxiety and fear.
In alternating chapters, the author defines two distinct plots that slowly begin to echo one another and ultimately weave together. A trio of new homeowners is dropped off in the remote village of Hesteyri — uninhabited in the winter — to undertake repairs on a cottage they purchased together. The married couple Katrin and Gardar face fiscal (and hints of some marital) uncertainty, their bourgeois lives upended by Iceland’s economic disruptions; their companion, Lif, has just lost her husband and is still seemingly wracked by guilt. The first chapter expertly sketches out who these folks are, and closes as Katrin sees a small person scampering with uncanny speed out of sight.
In the contrapuntal chapters, psychologist Freyr aids a police investigation into the vandalism of a preschool classroom. Every item in a locked room has been broken or shattered; pictures are disfigured; large, messy graffiti on the walls marks the room as “DIRTY.” Freyr is quickly startled to learn of a similar incident in the same school, some 60 years previously, following which one of the schoolchildren disappeared, never to be found. That unsolved crime unnerves Freyr, who is still grappling with his own son’s unexplained, and seemingly inexplicable, disappearance some three years before.
Sigurdardottir cunningly closes each chapter, switching back and forth between these plots, on a moment of shock and surprise — creating (in this reader) a vital itch I couldn’t help but scratch. I found myself rapt in a couple of late-night sessions, thinking I’d read just one more chapter and propelled to keep going, just to see what happened when that small, yellowed hand appeared on the wall around the corner of an empty room, or whether Freyr untangled what that giggling voice down the hall in his office late at night could have been.
The novel’s keen attention to building that suspense is matched by a twisty wit in making something connections. These are not mere jump scares (although given how expertly she shakes us, to call them “mere” is not quite accurate); Sigurdardottir has the mystery writer’s craft in teasing out connections that, once revealed, seem both comprehensible and inevitable, even though I didn’t see some of them coming.
I REMEMBER YOU races along, and is a real pleasure. I’m not sure, upon conclusion, that it breaks any new ground or will stick with me too much, but you’ll enjoy the heck out of the journey. —Mike Reynolds