Review: SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

SomeoneToWatchOverMeSig21927_fI 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 [2013]
ISBN 9781444734423
Length 483 pages
Format trade paperback
Book Series #5 in the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series

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13 Responses to Review: SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

  1. Bernadette – I think you’re spot on about how this book treats the issue of people with disabilities, our views of them, our assumptions about them and so on. It didn’t strike me as ‘preachy’ but at the same time, it certainly got me thinking. And you hit on something else important too: when the author brings things to a human level (in this case, the financial crisis), it makes a much more powerful impact. I really like this series quite a lot, and this was a good entry in it I thought. Yes, it’s long, but not ponderous.

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  2. Jose Ignacio says:

    I wasn’t sure I was going to read this book, Bernadette. But now I want to read it and seems to me it’s a strong contender for the 2014 Petrona Award.

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    • I was wary of it too Jose Ignacio but was pleasantly surprised. As far as the award goes it would be in my top 2 of the 4 I’ve read (it is too long though and I can remember so many conversations with Maxine about unnecessary length that I can’t help but let this factor play a part in my thinking)

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  3. Keishon says:

    A friend of mine thought the protagonist of this series was annoying and that put me off reading this author for a long, long time. Your review is good at tempting me to try her with titles I already own. Does she normally incorporate the supernatural in her books? I admit that that aspect of it does give me pause as it’s not a hybrid of crime fiction I typically enjoy. Thanks.

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    • Keishon I’ve only read the first 2 books in the series and now this one and I do recall a slight “woo woo” element in the first as well but I have to say it is very mild in both cases – I’m really not interested in the supernatural thing either and I have stopped reading some books because of it but she just gives the merest hint rather than making it a major plot device or theme – here for example there is just the suggestion that a woman who was killed in a hit and run accident one night hasn’t quite shuffled off to wherever it is dead people go and might be waiting around to find out who ran her over. Her possible presence occupies only a few passages of the book.

      As for Thora being annoying…I guess to some people she would be…as we all can be I’m sure. I rather like her as her heart’s in the right place and she manages to solve cases without putting herself in ridiculous ‘fem jep’ situations (though I wouldn’t want to live with her chaos)

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  4. TracyK says:

    I am glad you liked this. Especially since it was a long book. I have not even started reading this series but I do have book 1 in the queue.

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  5. FictionFan says:

    This was one of my favourite books of last year. I’m not usually keen on supernatural elements but she kept it just ambiguous enough to keep me onside, and I thought her writing of these sections was some of the creepiest I’ve read in a long time. Otherwise, I agree she handles the whole question of the various disabilities very sensitively without ever becoming mawkish. Thanks for the reminder – I must make time to read the rest of the series…

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    • Agree with you about ambiguity of the supernatural element – she gets it just right for me. I’ve got the middle books in this series to go back to as well – I’ve read them out of order as I want to read all the Petrona Award shortlist before the winner is announced in May.

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  6. Kathy D. says:

    Seeing that I can’t read all of the Petrona Award nominees before the winner is announced, I have to be selective. I’ve always liked this series. I have one on my TBR stack. I will try to get this one as I’m interested in how Sigurdardottir deals with people with disabilities. I like the protagonist in this series, an attorney, level-headed and realistic, but dealing with a slew of family problems as are most people.
    I don’t know about “political correctness.” It doesn’t bother me, and as a person with health problems and additionally, a broken arm, which is not yet healed, and which has limited my life greatly, I like to see people with disabilities handled with respect and sensitivity.
    If Sigurdardottir does this, and writes a good mystery at the same time, so much the better and I will find this book and read it.
    I am reading more slowly this year than ever, and can’t read all the doorstops for this year’s Petrona shortlist, so have to prioritize. So far Indridason and this author are on my TBR list; the others I’ll have to see. Any long book or one that could be maudlin or overwritten won’t be read by me.

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    • Sorry to hear you’ve had extra health problems this year Kathy…hope things improve soon.

      I think you’d like this book and the way it handles the issues. As far as the political correctness goes I was thinking about the time when I used to work in the office for a government service for disabled people and one of the most common gripes that the clients used to talk about was how people without disabilities would often be outraged/offended on their behalf about certain words being used to describe them or questions being asked of them regarding how they live with their disabilities. Most of the people with disabilities that I met were not bothered if people asked them questions about their disability (they could choose to answer or not but most would) and I can still remember one chap who was a quadriplegic telling me that with all his health issues, his getting around issues, his social issues, his getting a job issues he didn’t have time to get worried about being called a mean name and he’d far rather all those people who get offended when someone is called a name would instead direct their outrage towards the lack of government support and services for people with disabilities or the employers who without a single disabled employee. I was a bit worried when I saw that this was a book dealing with the subject of disability that it would have some of that “let’s be outraged on their behalf about the wrong things” type sensibility but was happy to discover none of that.

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  7. Kathy D. says:

    I would be very upset if anyone called me or anyone I know with disabilities a name, regardless of what service or not the government does/not provide. Frankly, I have needed help and what help I’ve gotten has been from friends and neighbors. And this is true going back years. That, and the fact that a wonderful cafe and the local drugstore deliver!
    In fact, I have to be careful about how I refer to people I know who have disabilities. I’ve gotten directions telling how people with disabilities should be referred to from both people with disabilities and friends who work with them at their jobs. So I try to be careful. Sensitivity is important. I’ve learned this myself, and, frankly, the most insensitive are health care professionals, believe it or not. It is shocking what the insensitivities have been, most by male doctors and one radiology technician. If I could write a book on this, I would.
    The more publicized are disabilities, and the more people who have them raise how they want to be referred to and treated, the better it is.
    When comedians over here refer to people with all types of disabilities in a degrading or nasty manner, now it’s not socially acceptable, which is a good thing. It is very hurtful.
    Anyway, I will find this book somehow.

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  8. Bill Selnes says:

    Bernadette: Why not the let the rest of the rant flow in a reply to this comment? No need down here in the comments to get distracted by a good book from the rant. I can see you need to say more. Let your rant free!

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  9. Kathy D. says:

    Do me a personal favor and consider that I am a person with disabilities, who has been met with insensitivities, especially by medical “professionals,” but occasionally by others. It’s hard enough to manage — usually without governmental assistance — without having to brave callous remarks.
    Also, friends with children with developmental disabilities, or even those on the TV news for one reason or another, have to protect their children from name-calling, celebrities and politicians’ insulting language, which is picked up in the print, TV and Internet news or social media. This is a big problem. What does one tell a child whose disability is maligned in the social media or in a popular song? One musician had to publicly apologize after using an insulting term for those with developmental disabilities — which upset children no end.

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