41. The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith

Published in 1999 by William Morrow.

I made a pretty terrible joke with myself when I began drafting notes for this review. I said “Hmm. Aud Torvingen is like an Atalanta from Atlanta!” Were you to read The Blue Place, though, you might agree with me that the comparison between Aud and Atalanta is more than a little on the nose. They’re both light on their feet; they both refuse to comply with notions of what a ‘proper woman’ should do, think or resemble. That said, I’d rather chase Aud than a golden apple because, well… Aud Torvingen is hot. Of Nordic ancestry, the six-footed former elite police officer no longer needs commission work to support herself financially, but accepts certain jobs for the challenge and curiosity they inspire. It would be untrue to say that she doesn’t think too much of a late-night run-in on an Inman Park sidewalk with a woman whose hair smells of fresh rainshowers. She does, even though she knows the woman she encountered can’t have set the building behind her to bursts of flames. The curious night that gives rise to these disjointedly-connected events persists: the woman turns another corner into Aud’s life, asking for the kind of assistance that Torvingen has (perhaps unfortunately) become all too skilled at giving.

If you declare that you love violence for the purity of it, odds are that you will find yourself alone at the buffet table, but the singular protagonist of Griffith’s novel would understand what you mean. There is an electric pulse to the concerns and rhythms of the human body in the writer’s prose: all these ways that we can bend, shatter, solder ourselves back together with far fewer implements than one might think. In the pauses of a conversation with Julia Lyons-Bennet, Aud considers what the woman at her side thinks of excitement, and, by extension, of danger.

“Danger… means suspending consideration and just being, acting and reacting, moving through a world where everything but you cools and slows down so you can glide between the blows and bullets and take out someone’s heart. Danger is desperately seductive.”

What’s laudable about Griffith’s sculpting of Torvingen is that her past extends far behind her, like a trail whose former rest-stops are only visible when she shares them. Her character is written with the uncomfortable heft of too-muchness — too much messiness, too many close calls, too few safe places. The sanctuaries we think of as inviolable are often a hair’s breadth away from being gutted, Aud reminds us. She reinforces this hard lesson as much by what she muses to herself, as by the string of events that set the narrative to a blistering string of causalities.

The Blue Place subverts the colour-by-numbers diagram of what thriller and suspense fiction should emulate, thankfully. In a genre that lumbers, recycles the same weary, gunsmoke-dappled tropes with every chapter, and consistently insults the reader’s skills of deduction and/or common sense, stories like these stand out. They dare take the format to new ground, or at the least, they prompt a paradigm shift that’s usually sorely lacking.

For instance, subterfuge and smuggling are allowed to occasionally take a backseat to the clarion call of Nature, with vivid and enduring results. As proficient as Aud is with slaying in less than fourty seconds, her attention to the cadences of the world around her should come as no surprise when they also extend to a hawk’s eye view from her deck at sunset. While sipping a Corona one evening, she sees:

“A huge barred owl ghosted silently across the garden to land in the pecan tree overlooking the deck. It turned its head this way and that, intent. Somewhere on the lawn a shrew crept through the grass in a desperate search for juicy insects to stoke its ever-needy metabolism. The owl focused for an instant, dropped into a shallow glide. It dipped once and I heard the tiniest squeak, then the soft wingspan and full talons were lifting over the hedge, blending with the darkness to the east.”

If so many paths seem to guide one back to laws of survival and primacy, then The Blue Place is just the sort of fiction for bearing those thoughts out — it suits violence, one could say, as violence suits the seasons.

Yet for all the ways in which savagery has never seemed better, what endures in the memory are Aud’s minutes of tenderness. “Beneath us”, she observes in the final phase of a plane ride in perfect company, “at the head of the swan-shaped neck of water that is Oslofjorden, Oslo glittered in the spring sunlight like a broken-open geode.” Her happy contemplations are worth their weight in the salt of all her old scars; they serve to humanize her unflinchingness, proof that even the most battle-grizzled steel can be tempered. If Aud could not feel pain, then her sorrows would be moot, and not sting, nor coruscate your heart with raw grief as they do.

Expect to be split open like a parted lower lip by The Blue Place. It will make you want to do things:

  • write a semi-pornographic letter to Aud
  • travel to Norway
  • kiss the right girl at the wrong time
  • take a self-defense class
  • kiss the wrong girl at the right time
  • read the other two books in the Aud Torvingen series
  • live more outwardly and outrageously, until it starts to hurt.

“I was unstoppable, lost in the joy of muscle and bone and breath. Axe kick to the central line of the huddled mass on the floor; disappointment at the sad splintering of ribs and not the hard crack of spine. Mewl and haul of body trying to sit; step and slam, hammer fist smearing the bone of his cheek. Latex slipping on sweat. Body under my hands folding to the floor, not moving. Nothing moving but me, feeling vast and brilliant with strength, immeasurable and immortal.”

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