I’ve packed my literary suitcase and ventured to Iceland and a suspense novel, Snare, by Lilja Sigurdardóttir the first in a trilogy that also includes Trap and Cage. The single-word titles are perfect for these lean, taut novels.
Lilja was born in Iceland in 1972 and was raised in Mexico, Sweden, Spain, and Iceland, where she currently lives with her female partner. In addition to being an award-winning playwright, she has become internationally renowned as an author, whose works have been published in 14 countries. She began her career as a novelist with Steps in 2009. Snare was published in Iceland in 2015, and two years later, the book appeared in English, her debut outing for English-speaking readers. Its film rights were purchased by Palomar Pictures, with production scheduled for this year. She has published nine novels altogether—two trilogies and three stand-alone titles—but only five are currently available in English, with another book, Red as Blood, due in October. Lilja has won several Icelandic crime fiction awards and has been longlisted for a CWA International Dagger.
Snare takes place from November 2010 through February 2011 in Iceland. The reader is treated to fine atmospheric descriptions of the ice and snow, the long hours of darkness, and the volcanic ash that often blows over the cities and towns. The main character, Sonja, is an attractive, divorced woman who has lost primary custody of her beloved nine-year-old son, Tómas, to her powerful husband, Adam, after he discovered her in bed with a woman, Agla. He also took the house and left Sonja financially stranded. Out of desperation, when an acquaintance from her time with Adam called and offered legal help, she naively accepted. The lawyer, Thorgeir, suggested a way she could provide for herself and save enough money to sue for sole custody of her son. All she would need to do is make a few overseas trips and return to Iceland with cocaine, implying the amounts would be modest and the arrangement temporary. Thus, when we begin the novel, Sonja is already ensnared and has become a successful smuggler—very scrupulous and clever about disguising her operation—though she is constantly fearful of being caught at customs. Her anxiety drives much of the novel, but Sonja must also deal with a sadistic enforcer, who threatens her sexually and then sends photos of himself near her son, saying he will harm the boy if she refuses to transport drugs. The kilo amounts are then substantially increased, and the trap grows even more treacherous.
Despite her marriage to Adam, Sonja considers herself lesbian, but her relationship with the hard-drinking Agla is fraught with instability. Agla often arrives on Sonja’s doorstep in a drunken state, but the bigger issue seems to be Agla’s unwillingness to accept her lesbianism—this is her first relationship. Her behavior toward Sonja is erratic: at times obsessively attracted and then angry and rejecting. Agla is a high-level bank executive who works with Sonja’s ex-husband, Adam. She is under investigation for market manipulation in the aftermath of the Icelandic financial crash—one of three participants in a fraudulent scheme that includes Adam, though Sonja is unaware of his involvement and also seems unfocused on the depth of her lover’s criminal culpability. Agla’s questioning and prosecution are parallel plot elements.
Sprinkled through the book are brief narratives by her son, Tómas. He reveals how much he loves his mother and wants to live with her. These pages highlight Sonja’s caring and devotion and humanize how her predicament was created by this need to be with her son and to protect him.
The fourth narrator is a senior custom’s inspector, Bragi, who is being pressured to retire. He dearly loves his wife, who has dementia and is in a care facility. Without her at home, Bragi is bereft and lives for his work and his daily visits to his wife. He wants to bring her back to live with him but can’t afford to pay for full-time aides. When Bragi notices Sonja’s polished and strangely consistent behavior at the airport, he becomes suspicious that she might be a smuggler.
The first chapter begins at a European airport’s security gate. Sonja has removed her belt and shoes and placed metal objects on the tray to avoid setting off the alarms and causing the screeners to do a body search. She nervously passes through the metal detector, smiles at the security staff, and takes her bag to the conveyor belt. She then walks as fast as the packet taped between her legs will allow, buys an exact model of a Samsonite suitcase used by another female passenger, and in the ladies’ bathroom, places the drugs inside. After visiting the airport duty-free shops to fill her bag with Christmas presents for her son, she boards the plane bound for Iceland and recounts her anxiety during the flight and upon arrival, when her fears rise as she strolls past the CCTV cameras. At the baggage claim, Sonja exchanges her new suitcase with the woman’s suitcase. After the woman retrieves the Samsonite bag containing the drug packet, Sonja follows the woman to the car park, greets her, and explains that their suitcases were accidentally switched. Taking the case with the drugs, Sonja escapes.
These are the kinds of complicated strategies she must devise in order to stay safe. The author does a fine job describing Sonja’s terror and the ensuing hand-off of the drugs to the enforcer, which frightens Sonja as much as the smuggling itself. Though I won’t reveal any details, watch for the scene with the tiger. It’s chilling.
In response to some questions I sent Lilja, she very kindly provided some enlightening explanations*: “The inspiration for the storyline is partly [based on] Iceland´s huge drug problem that is not much talked about. As we are on an island and have one international airport and one passenger ferry, it is an absolute riddle how this flow of drugs enters the country. So the smugglers obviously have to be very clever. The idea of Sonja the smuggler comes from my own experience of smuggling a salami to Iceland. To be honest, I didn´t know I was smuggling and that certain types of salamis (with raw meat) were forbidden in Iceland so I was shocked when a big man in uniform with a dog took my [delicacy] away. I was also fined but this experience gave me the character of Sonja.”
She adds: “The customs office in Iceland [has] since made up for taking my salami by helping me with all my questions regarding possibilities for Sonja’s smuggling, [giving] guided tours and encouragement. They were absolutely lovely to me…”
Another question I asked Lilja was about Sonja’s lover, Agla, and her shame about being a lesbian even during the period when the novel takes place. She replied: “…gay people in Iceland have had full rights since 2010 and the general attitude towards LGBTQ+ people in Iceland is now very relaxed and open. But some of us of the older [LGTBQ+] generation (I am 50) remember different times. It sometimes feels like a different planet we lived on back then! And the character of Agla is one of those people. She probably remembers old attitudes toward gay people and she probably has ingested negative…remarks regarding gays when she was a child. But she is also a ruthless business person, a woman in a man’s world that has had to sacrifice a lot to make it in the cut-throat banking world. So she regards her tender feelings for Sonja as a weakness…partly because they are same sex but partly [because] she feels vulnerable with her. I also like to play with the contrast in her character that she feels shame about her feelings for Sonja but not for the financial crimes she is committing.” This last point was illuminating and made me want to re-read Agla’s story.
Lilja Sigurdardóttir takes a linear approach to her novel, with minimal back story and little discursive padding so that the reader doesn’t need to keep flipping back several pages to recall what has happened. There are also fewer characters as compared to many suspense novels and therefore easier to remember. This structural simplicity gets us on board her thoroughbred tale and takes us for a ride at full gallop. To enhance the speed, the book is divided into very short chapters—usually one to three pages long—so the reader constantly thinks, “Oh, okay…one more chapter…and then “Oh, well, maybe one more…”
Lilja is an accomplished storyteller. Snare casts a web around Sonja but also around the reader, pulling ever more tightly so that we feel as trapped as she is. And though Sonja is technically a drug trafficker and a criminal, her plight evokes our complete sympathy.
Snare is an engaging read and a satisfying sprint. I look forward to the other two titles in the trilogy, Trap and Cage. All three are available in paperback, audio, and eBook formats.
*I’ve made a few minor deletions or additions to clarify the author’s e-mail text.