I know it’s not the normal way of doing things but I feel the need to talk first about a couple of things SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME isn’t. For a few days now I’ve been staring at the bright red balloon on the front cover of my copy which proclaims ‘Iceland’s answer to Stieg Larsson’, getting angrier by the minute at yet one more piece of stupid, inaccurate marketing. In an effort to avoid being hopelessly side-tracked by the rant quadrant of my brain I’ll just say that if you read the book expecting something akin to a further instalment of the adventures of Lisbeth and Mikael you will be disappointed (which is, let me be clear, not nearly the same thing as suggesting the book itself is disappointing).
The other thing that SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME isn’t is short. There was a cruel kind of irony in reading a book which I was never able to hold comfortably due to its heft in which this sentence appears, “Lena was lying on a nice soft sofa, but she couldn’t get into a good position due to the weight of the book she was holding”. I recommend a good editor for all.
Now that I’ve got my grizzling out of the way I can turn to all the things I did like about SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME.
Its premise is simple enough: Icelandic lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is hired to prove that a young man called Jakob, who has been locked away in a secure psychiatric facility for setting fire to the care home in which he was living, is innocent. But the story turns out to be a complex one in which many twists are cleverly revealed. And underlying it all is a gently thought-provoking social commentary.
One of the themes the book tackles overtly without being strident is the myriad faces of disability and how the disabled are treated by society at large and the individuals around them. The care home that burned down was an experimental one housing patients with a range of disabilities including Jakob who has Down’s syndrome, a severely autistic teenager and a young woman with locked-in syndrome. As Thóra tries to piece together the case she confronts her own (and others’) ignorance about Down’s syndrome and the other disabilities that the people she meets or discusses live with, and is depicted with the awkwardness about not inadvertently giving offense that the average person who doesn’t deal regularly with anyone with a disability might have. Sigurdardottir achieved a good balance between realism and sensitivity here, never being stupidly politically correct but also not shying away from highlighting that some of the most difficult challenges people with disabilities face are the expectations (or lack thereof) that other people have of them.
The other theme it’s hard to ignore is the fallout from Iceland’s spectacular financial collapse in recent years which seems to impact everyone in the story in some way or another. Things are difficult for Thóra’s family as her boyfriend Matthew has lost his job in banking and she has to take her parents into her home (along with her own children, her son’s girlfriend and their baby) because they’ve hit financial hardship. More broadly there are cutbacks in essential government services, people doing work they hate due to a lack of options and a general malaise that seems quite palpable. Although you might not believe it if you paid any attention to most media, Australia pulled through the GFC relatively unscathed so it is particularly interesting to me to read something that seems to offer genuine insight into what other countries have been through.
The characterisations here are quite lovely with Thóra being amusing, intelligent and persistent as always and not afraid to admit there are things she doesn’t know. Her desire to help achieve justice for people who have been wronged is on particular show here in respect to Jakob as well as another case which comes to light during her investigation. Her relationship with Matthew is sweet without being mushy and because he is her polar opposite in terms of basic personality the pairing offers an entertaining extra element to the book (perhaps I am biased though as I share some of Matthew’s love of order). Jakob and Ragna, the girl with locked-in syndrome, are the only two residents of the care home who survive the fire so the only ones we get to meet ‘in person’ (rather than via the memories of their families) and it is nice to see them both depicted as people with personalities rather than disabilities.
So, despite being a little disgruntled about a couple of aspects of SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (one of which I’ll admit isn’t the author’s fault) I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. Even the appearance of a ghost managed to maintain my interest and I found the ending very satisfying which is something of a rarity. Highly recommended.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Philip Roughton
Publisher Hodder & Stoughton 
Length 483 pages
Format trade paperback
Book Series #5 in the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series
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