There’s a lovely image towards the end of After the Death of Ellen Keldberg, in which a young man named Mikkel is captivated by “the famous painting of the drowned fisherman lying on a table lit by daylight from a window, with everyone around him dumbstruck by grief. There’s his widow, and his young son, and his mate with a dewdrop dangling from his nose.” It expertly captures the difference between real, messy grief and its artistic representation, and also touches on one of the novel’s central themes: what art is meant to achieve, whether it reflects the world or somehow shapes it. It’s a subtle, unexpected moment in a thoughtful novel full of surprises.
After the Death of Ellen Keldberg looks like a crime novel, but it’s not – like The Bridge and The Killing, its Scandi-noir influences, Petersen’s story uses a character’s death as a way into exploring the wider community. At the heart of the plot is Ellen Keldberg, a well-known local drunk, who’s frozen to death on a bench in the centre of a chic village called Skagen; her nephew, Mikkel, is sent over there to arrange the funeral while his parents are holidaying in Greece. On the train up he happens across Anne-Sofie, the artistic (and possibly unhinged) daughter of politician Holger Strand, who’s heading to Skagen to pitch her work to Knud Harber, the head of a prestigious artist’s colony – and who has other business to figure out in Skagen.
At first there’s a lot of disparate threads that need to be pulled together, and it’s not always clear how they relate to one another: that said, if you’ve watched The Bridge then you’ll likely have the patience to stick with it while the key characters come into focus. And once the plot kicks into gear it becomes something richly satisfying, enlivened by a terrific setting where little girls overhear stories about fishing boats ‘icing up’ –
Millimetre by millimetre the ice had crept over every piece of rigging and the mast, and gradually and mercilessly the centre of gravity had shifted while the fishermen fought for their lives, until in a few seconds the vessel had rolled over like a toy boat in a bathtub –
and where the cast of characters have nicknames like ‘The Crab’ and ‘The Parrot’. I did struggle a little to visualise Skagen, admittedly, initially thinking it was a fishing village rather than the chic tourist destination it apparently is: perhaps because Petersen has done such an excellent job sketching out the town’s shadows that I saw it as much more remote and dangerous.
Mikkel’s far from passive in the plot, and has enough to do looking for a valuable missing painting that belonged to his aunt, but Anne-Sofie is much more interesting: her relationships unpredictable, her artworks filled with disturbing imagery (naked in a pond, slitting her own wrists) and taking a perverse joy in telling Mikkel about how her stepfather kills pigeons.
“Do you know how to kill a pigeon?” she asks, looking at him as if he were in an exam.
“You cut their heads off,” he says.
“Wrong,” she says… “You simply squeeze the air out of their lungs in a tight grip, and they die slowly and painfully.”
Anne-Sofie also allows Petersen to draw upon themes of heredity and family inheritance, exploring how much of our behaviour comes from our lived experience. Anne-Sofie will certainly keep readers guessing – I was wrong-footed by some revelations in the final third – and she’s a fascinating character throughout, veering away from cliché just when it seems like that’s where she’s headed.
I did have a few niggling frustrations with After the Death of Ellen Keldberg – on several occasions, it’s unclear who the protagonist is in a particular chapter, something Petersen could have easily fixed – and more than one character has an alternate name, which can at times make the narrative difficult to follow. Those problems are far from insurmountable, but they can occasionally take the reader out of a story which is for the most part thoroughly engrossing. All the same, the quality is fortunately high enough to offset them.
Ultimately, though, I found the most enjoyable thing in After the Death of Ellen Keldberg was its thematic depth. Eddie Thomas Petersen has put together an exciting narrative that’s also laden with interesting ideas, all making for a surprisingly rich experience – whether it’s exploring nature vs. nurture or the purpose of art. It’s shrewdly paced, at times beautiful and at times horrific, and it’s always compelling. An excellent read as the dark winter months start to draw in.
After the Death of Ellen Keldberg is released by Handheld Press on 3rd September 2018. You can pre-order it from Amazon on Kindle for £3.99 or in paperback for £12.99. Better yet, buy it direct from Handheld Press here – the paperback costs the same, but they’ll make substantially more from your sale.
Handheld Press are on Twitter here, with Handheld Modern, their fiction arm, publishing another book in November. They’re well worth a look as an up-and-coming small publisher.
Thanks to Handheld Press for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes