Published: September 3rd, 2020
Publisher: MacLehose Press
Format: Hardcover, Kindle, Audio
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Translated Fiction
I’m delighted to be sharing my review today as part of the blog tour. Thank you to Corinna at MacLehose for the invitation to take part and for the gifted copy of the book.
The legendary Læstadius becomes a kind of Sherlock Holmes in this exceptional historical crime novel.
It is 1852, and in Sweden’s far north, deep in the Arctic Circle, charismatic preacher and Revivalist Lars Levi Læstadius impassions a poverty-stricken congregation with visions of salvation. But local leaders have reason to resist a shift to temperance over alcohol.
Jussi, the young Sami boy Læstadius has rescued from destitution and abuse, becomes the preacher’s faithful disciple on long botanical treks to explore the flora and fauna. Læstadius also teaches him to read and write – and to love and fear God.
When a milkmaid goes missing deep in the forest, the locals suspect a predatory bear is at large. A second girl is attacked, and the sheriff is quick to offer a reward for the bear’s capture. Using early forensics and daguerreotype, Læstadius and Jussi find clues that point to a far worse killer on the loose, even as they are unaware of the evil closing in around them.
To Cook a Bear explores how communities turn inwards, how superstition can turn to violence, and how the power of language can be transformative in a richly fascinating mystery.
“A man of violence walks free. A killer bear in human form.”
This English translation of a Swedish mystery is like no other mystery I’ve read before. Set in Sweden in 1852, it follows Jussi, a runaway Sami boy who has been taken in by the revivalist preacher, Laestadius, and his family.
When a young woman goes missing and is later found dead, it appears that a killer bear is at large and a reward is offered for its capture. But Laestadius sees clues that point to a much more sinister suspect. So, with Jussi assisting him, he begins his own investigation.
But when another young woman is taken and it seems they have identified their killer, the pair find themselves in danger. For this is a killer who will do whatever it takes to remain hidden.
“People are greatly in fear of the devil. Especially when he comes in the guise of a wolf or a snake. But he is far more dangerous in human form. And most dangerous of all in the form of an angel. For when Satan himself transforms into an angel of light, it is hard to escape him.”
A sweeping Swedish historical fiction, based in fact, with elements of mystery and Scandi-noir, this is a beautifully written novel. It is a little strange at times, and took me a little while to get into, but I loved the richly drawn world the author brings to life, transporting you back to 1850s Sweden. It is a time I knew nothing about and I enjoyed learning more about that era. And just because it’s beautifully written, don’t think that means it doesn’t touch on more brutal aspects— it is a historical murder mystery after all. There were some gruesome scenes, including one involving the bear mentioned in the title that I’ll not soon forget. I also enjoyed historical elements such as the beginnings of forensics that Laestadius uses in his investigations. But, for me, it was the characters that I found most fascinating and compelling.
“By itself, each letter was frail. But when the pastor taught the young Sami boy to place them next to one another, something happened. It was like lighting a fire ; one single piece of wood was of little use, but if you added another, it instantly grew hotter. The letters derived life from each other ; in the company of others they began to speak.”
Our narrator, Jussi, is a Sami boy who was found by the preacher after fleeing his abusive home. And it was his journey I was drawn to most of all. Shy, unsure and longing for acceptance, Jussi pulled on my heartstrings. I loved his journey of self-discovery and learning. His descriptions of learning to read and exploring books brought to life the wonder, joy and transformative power of words; how they open up the world to you and change your perception of life. It was a magical thing to witness him as he discovered these things. What was harder to bear were the injustices he suffered at the hands of locals, who judge him as the weird Sami boy. There was one particular point where I shed a tear for how savagely treated and despaired at the cruelty with which some treat their fellow man.
Laestadius is a diversive figure, loved and loathed in his community depending on their views on the Lutheran revival that he is spearheading. I was ambivalent towards him myself, but liked that he saw details others didn’t and persued his quest for the truth even in the face of great opposition.
To Cook A Bear is a captivating and touching story that is unlike anything you will have read before. It kept me guessing from start to finish and the with characters are ones that will stay with me.
MEET THE AUTHOR:
Mikael Niemi was born in 1959 and grew up in Pajala in the northernmost part of Sweden, near the Finnish border, where he still lives. Before the publication of To Cook A Bear, his breakthrough novel was Popular Music From Vittula (2000), selling more than one million copies. It won the Swedish August Prize and has been translated into more than thirty languages. To Cook A Bear has now been sold for translation to fifteen territories.
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