The Bird Tribunal
PublisherOrenda Books
Date Published01 September 2016
Price£ 8.99

The Bird Tribunal

by Agnes Ravatn (translated by Rosie Hedger)

TV presenter Allis Hagtorn takes a job as a housekeeper and a gardener in a remote house on an isolated fjord. Her mysterious silent employer establishes strict rules. But as they both await return of his wife from travels, Allis starts making very unsettling discoveries.


In April, Allis Hagtorn arrives at a remote house on a lonely fjord to start a job as housekeeper and gardener for the enigmatic and surly Sigurd Bagge. She sees this opportunity as a new beginning and penitence for her secretive past, following the collapse of her TV career and tumultuous private life in Oslo. But expectations of meeting an ordinary man, awaiting the return of his wife Nor from her travels, fade as the isolated reality slowly starts taking hold.

Sigurd lives a very simple, rigorous existence which he enforces with the full emotive force, and that includes minimal amount of speaking. Each day Allis cooks food the way he wants it, and clears the garden after the harsh winter. Sometimes she goes to a small shop where she’s the recipient of strange, curt comments. Each day she also wonders where Sigurd spends all his waking hours, apart from occasional trips away, as he seems to vanish behind his room’s door only to appear by her side in the forest or by the fjord’s pier.

Strict rules make Allis uncomfortable and anxious, though the routine and the silent encounters at home slowly develop into a complicated, uneasy relationship. As spring changes into summer and Allis settles into the humdrum of her voluntary exile, she realises that not everything is as pure and flawless as Sigurd presents it to be.

Although only the two of them are the main characters in the chilling master-and-servant play, the feeling of unease encompasses the environment Allis is in; she suspects that something terrible must have happened in this seemingly idyllic setting, and cannot resist searching her surroundings for clues to the whereabouts of Nor.

As the whole story is told from Allis’ perspective it feels that Sigurd’s point of view needs to be explored, too, as him becoming an idol in this relationship doesn’t ring true. However, the tight narrative keeps you guessing and wanting more, and that’s the allure of Agnes Ravatn’s unique style: full of hidden passion, tragedy and hurt. Pared down restrained language brings magic to the stunning emotional and natural landscape. There is no need for additional or unnecessary words as everything that had to be said is already there. 

For such a modest in size book The Bird Tribunal offers an incredible richness of themes. The obsessive, all-consuming bond between Allis and Sigurd is analysed in minute detail, with painfully sensitive elements coming to the surface. The atonement for the past sins and the titular bird tribunal carry powerful messages, as well as questions of morality and humanity. This aspect is wonderfully epitomised by the re-telling of an old story taken from Norse mythology, about Balder, who was a generous, joyful and just god, tricked into dying by a vicious rival. Weaving this sad and lovely tale of a Norse hero brings the sagas back to contemporary life where they still belong even though we might not realise their constant impact. 

One final point. I am always in awe of translators’ skills and craftsmanship, and their ability to travel between languages. Rosie Hedger is already a winner of English PEN’s (Writers in Translation programme) Award for her exquisite work in bringing this evocative, chilling and beautiful psychological thriller to the English-speaking world.

Reviewed 05 August 2017 by Ewa Sherman