Book #78

Reptile Memoirs by Silje Ulstein

Liv has a lot of secrets. For her, home is the picturesque town of Ålesund, perched on a fjord in western Norway. One night, in the early-morning embers of a great party in the basement apartment she shares with two friends, Liv is watching TV, high on weed, and sees a python on an Australian nature show. She becomes obsessed with the idea of buying a snake as a pet. Soon Nero, the baby Burmese python, becomes the apartment's fourth roommate. As Liv bonds with Nero, she feels extremely protective, like a caring mother, and she is struck by a desire that surprises her with its intensity. Finally she is safe.

Thirteen years later, in the nearby town of Kristiansund, Mariam Lind goes on a shopping trip with her eleven-year-old daughter, Iben, who angers her mother by asking for a magazine one too many times. Mariam storms off, leaving Iben in the shop and, expecting her young daughter to find her own way home, heads off on a long calming drive. When she returns home in the evening, her husband is relieved to see her but terrified that Iben isn't also there. Detective Roe Olsvik is assigned to the case of Iben's disappearance; he has just turned sixty and is new to the Kristiansund police department. As he interrogates Mariam, he instantly suspects her--but there is much more to this case and these characters than their outer appearances would suggest.

Ulstein presents us with a truly unsettling crime thriller here, one which I’m still attempting to wrap my brain around. Her utter commitment to the disturbing and macabre is clear, and her unique ability to shock is something I wasn’t quite prepared for.

Initially, we are looking into the case of a missing child. Pretty standard fare for a thriller, and although the reality is terrifying, it’s still pretty comfortable ground for crime fiction readers. But the story of the child and mother is much more intricate and weird than any of us could imagine. We flick through multiple voices and multiple timelines to reach an answer - an answer which comes blessedly, as Ulstein puts us through a lot to get there.

Each chapter is headed with the name of our narrator, and the date which they are narrating from. It’s important to pay attention to these, as some characters flick back and forth through time and, as I’m not someone who pays particular attention to dates and times, it became confusing for me pretty quickly.

I did really enjoy the plot itself, although I really felt it could have been chopped considerably. There’s a lot of time spent on characters woefully pondering past mistakes, tearing themselves up, and exuding misery, all of which became excessive. I also couldn’t get behind the chapters narrated by the snake - all these seemed to say were ‘I am a hungry, loveless snake’ which I feel I could have worked out quite easily by myself.

A truly unique and ambitious novel, and definitely something I hadn’t experienced before. Although it could have benefitted from the removal of many words, and sometimes entire chapters, it’s a good twisty thriller with odd angles and dimensions.