Review: I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

“In an isolated village in the Icelandic Westfjords, three friends set to work renovating a derelict house. But soon they realise they are not alone there – something wants them to leave, and it’s making its presence felt.

Meanwhile, in a town across the fjord, a young doctor investigating the suicide of an elderly woman discovers that she was obsessed with his vanished son.

When the two stories collide the terrifying truth is uncovered . . .”

I Remember You was selected as one of the books we were reading for Hear… Read This!, a monthly book club podcast. I had heard a lot of praise for Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, in particular for her crime novels, so had high hopes for this mixture of crime and supernatural. After reading it over Halloween, sadly it fails to live up to an interesting premise and quickly outstays its welcome.

The story opens with three friends travelling across the sea to a remote corner of the Westfjords in Iceland. They are husband and wife, Gardar and Katrin, and their friend Lif, a recently bereaved widow, and we follow them as they set out to renovate a recently purchased house, to make it suitable to rent out for guests. The weather is hard and cruel and the surrounding small village is deserted. The boatman taking them becomes rather wary when he hears which property they have bought, as the house does not have a good reputation… So far, so familiar. Things then proceed to go bump in the night, or get very boring in the night.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Iceland, a puzzling incident of vandalism during a break-in at a primary school occurs and a psychologist doctor, Freyr, is called in for his opinion. He discovers that two of his elderly patients can remember things about a similar incident many, many years ago. He begins to investigate, all the while still troubled by the unresolved mystery of the disappearance of his young son.

Chapters alternate between these two plots, showing what appear to be two different stories running in parallel. I liked Freyr, and the grief that he and his wife were experiencing over the loss of their child felt real and still raw, affecting every aspect of their lives. Except every time I finished the chapters with Freyr, as he continued with his investigation, my heart sank, as it meant going back to the isolated house. It was different though with the three in the house as very quickly Gardar, Katrin and Lif outstay their welcome, with squabbling, spectacularly stupid decisions and a lot of complaining hardly creating a likeable trio. Perhaps if the story had focused on Freyr and him alone I would enjoyed it far more.

Elements of the story also felt very familiar and I had my doubts about this book from the first chapter. I couldn’t work out if the aim was to create a deliberately cliched story, playing  around with our expectations. From the setting of people marooned in a haunted house, nothing about it felt fresh or original. As it progressed it became a case of ticking the boxes off one by one. Every chapter featured the three characters talking about their situation followed by a bang or noise from their supernatural companion. It became quite comical, reminding me of film critic Mark Kermode reviewing Paranormal Activity. The chapters were quiet, quiet, BANG!, quiet, quiet and so on. The three leave the house, came back again, leave the house again. I wanted the ghost to finish them off by the end.

It’s not that I have an aversion to horror. I grew up on a diet of battered Stephen King books and would often watch late night scares on FilmFour. It was always the more ordinary scares, those set in the run-of-the-mill mundane lives, that chilled me the most. Except with King he places you perfectly into the mind of the characters and even if they are unpleasant or unlikeable, at least you feel like you know them. Here one character in particular has such a violent change in nature at the end that it becomes incredibly far-fetched and unbelievable. King can also make the smallest things terrifying and with Children of the Corn he shows how children can be scary. Unfortunately here, it just become corny.

As if that weren’t enough, Sigurðardóttir’s writing style also infuriated me. Chapters frequently end on a cliffhanger, which is fine, as it makes you want to turn the page and keep reading. Except the narration shouldn’t signpost things too far in advance or even give away the plot twist. At the end of one chapter we are told that one of the characters is going to go missing. Then in the following chapter he does with little surprise to the reader. I think Sigurðardóttir was aiming for suspense or a feeling of dread but all it achieves is to simply create a feeling of going through the motions as we wait for it to happen. Other times we are told of a cliffhanger and then once we return to that side of the story it has skipped forward in time, past the event in question. The narration then tells us what has just happened. In a horror story I want to be witnessing these events for myself, not having them recapped to me. It takes you away from the events, even those that are supposed to scare us.

As you can see, the majority of this review is focused on the haunted house element. This is purely down to it being the weakest side but one that sadly takes up half the novel. The crime aspect, of Freyr investigating the deaths and looking for his son, was fairly well done. I did suspect fairly early on what had happened but there were enough twists and reveals to keep me going through to the end and was the only saving grace of the book.

This wasn’t the horror at Halloween that I wanted

By the end, I Remember You became a real struggle to read. One half of the books features a boring plot with characters I didn’t particularly care which doesn’t exactly compel you to carry on reading. Coupled with a laugh out loud twist at the end, this wasn’t the horror at Halloween that I wanted.

– Rob
@robchilver

3 Replies to “Review: I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir”

  1. I really appreciate this review. The one Yrsa Sigurðardóttir book I read (Last Rituals) drove me crazy with its frustrating main character (“spectacularly stupid decisions” featured there as well). The thing is, her books have such fascinating set-ups that I’m half tempted to read her again. Clearly, though, Last Rituals wasn’t just a blip.

  2. I’m coming to this review a bit late but I couldn’t agree with you more. I read this book when it first came out in Icelandic and found the story fascinating but Yrsa’s execution of it a bit wanting. What particularly frustrated me was, as you mentioned, when she had a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter but when we return to that storyline in a subsequent chapter the action is already over and we are simply told what has happened. I thought this was a cheap way to get around writing the suspenseful part.

    I don’t know how widely this is known outside of Iceland but Yrsa is actually a full time civil engineer and only writes in her spare time. She really does it sort of as a hobby even though she is so successful at it. I love her plots and think she can often be so original but I have never found her writing (her “prose”, if you will) to be particularly strong.

  3. Thank you both for your comments. I really wanted it to be good but sadly it wasn’t to be. It was just a bit dull apart from a few scenes and as I said, the cliffhangers that ended up not being them drove me mad! Hopefully I may find one of her books that I can enjoy – Rob

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