Reviewed by Nichola Smalley in SBR 2013:2
Review Section: Fiction: The Past and the Present
It’s not often that I read a book capable of sweeping me off my feet and transporting me to another world while at the same time teaching me, in a very grounded way, things about the world I live in. But that’s just what Michael Mortimer’s novel Jungfrustenen does. Reading the book, which has caused quite a stir even prior to its publication, I found myself at once keen to escape into its fast-paced, very contemporary narrative, and intrigued by the historical background of the supporting characters, among them personalities as varied as Greta Garbo, Linnaeus and Goethe.
At the start of this first volume in a projected six-part series, young biology student Ida Nordlund receives an unexpected call from her grandmother Alma in Moscow; a call which is to turn everything Ida knows about her life, and about life itself, upside-down. The call marks the beginning of a fraught journey, as Ida’s quiet routine is swapped for a disastrous Nobel Prize ceremony, desperate rides in stolen cars and, finally, the snow-covered roads of the Arctic Circle. Her task is to unravel the mystery of the Maidenstone, an unfathomable, precious object pressed into her hands by the desperate physicist Lobov, shortly before his dramatic death. It soon becomes clear that the Maidenstone is more than just a trinket, that it holds the key to unravelling her family history and perhaps even the identity of her long-absent mother, Eva.
Mortimer trips back and forth between the main lines of the narrative, scientific addenda, and accounts of events long past that play an essential role in the present, in a manner well-suited to the short attention spans of so many readers today. In doing so, he gives the reader glimpses of secrets Ida can only guess at. This is perhaps one of the reasons why the novel is so compelling – the reader’s insight into events unknown to Ida adds another level of engagement in her mishaps, successes and discoveries.
Ida also engages the reader with her fallibility and ordinariness; her character is gently portrayed in touching episodes born out of weakness and fear on Ida’s part, or small clues to her tastes and opinions. There is also a satisfying, yet not overbearing geekiness to the story, for instance about the way Ida and her foster father and companion Lasse fall into their familiar habit of testing one another on the Latin names of plants. For many reasons, these small incidents add up to a good example of the elements that make the novel so enjoyable. The sudden change in the pace and scale of the narrative relieves the build-up of narrative tension for the reader, as well as for the characters. It highlights the bond between the characters, giving them a shared history and humanity that is easy to relate to. Finally, it roots the events of the story in a factual foundation.
Another strength of the novel is Mortimer’s deft characterisation through voice – each of the characters has a mode of dialogue unique to him or herself, which often tells the reader as much about that character’s traits as their actions or the content of their speech. For me, this was a real highlight – the creepy comments and connivances of one character, combined with the neuroticism of his travelling companion, are spinetingling.It’s rare to find a novel that is as adventurous, page-turning and well-crafted as Jungfrustenen. I can’t wait to read the next instalment in the series.