WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS by Agnete Friis is an emotionally fraught literary thriller that completely shook me by the time I finished reading it. One thing that stood out from the get-go was the underlying sense of distress and damage that made it an intense and darkly atmospheric read. Actual blood and gore are sparse in this unconventional Nordic Noir, though not entirely non-existent because Ella’s recollections of the violent night from when she was 7 years old occasionally surface. It’s one of the major threads that we follow in the book, along with an alternative flashback narrative that discloses her parents’ relationship and their troubled marriage.
Ella’s present day situation and the past form an effective combination of anxiety, anticipation and grit that lay out a story that’s laced with hard truths and trauma. As this follows the darkness of one family, it is a domestic thriller, yet Ella’s destitution lends it a different and more public dynamic. The novel lacks the abusive and suffocating household setting; instead it offers a troubled character in an abandoned family house in front of a beautiful beach. The open nature of the small town gives the thriller a breathing atmosphere that’s beautiful and alive, yet also crackling with tension.
To briefly lay out the synopsis: In WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS, 27 year-old Ella Nygaard is living a bleak existence in Copenhagen with her 11-year-old son Alex. The list of problems in Ella’s life is endless; from alcohol abuse and crippling panic episodes to the overhanging presence of social services breathing down her neck — things are not stable or pleasant in any sense of the word. Despite her flaws and downfalls, Ella firmly believes she’s the best possible parent for her son Alex. After an episode lands her in the psych ward, Ella discovers Alex has been assigned a foster family — her worst nightmare comes true. She does the only think that makes sense at the time; she kidnaps Alex and takes him miles away to her childhood town. It’s the same town where her father killed her mother in cold blood when she was 7.
The melancholy and daunting atmosphere of this literary thriller is what makes it such a gripping experience. WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS has a light plot, however it’s layered with tension and angst, which made me feel unsettled and brought out my distrust for most of the characters. This is something I personally enjoy in thrillers – when all characters are so messed up that the only one you trust is the 7-year old fishing on the beach. Going back to the small town in Northern Denmark acts as a catalyst that unravels Ella’s past and the darkness that has enveloped her life. The alternative narrative told from the perspective of Helgi, her father, and Anna, her mother, reveals the tensions of an unhappy marriage and the repercussions and damage of breaking away from Jehovah’s Witness, an oppressive denomination of Christianity. It also offers a deeper perspective into Ella’s past and offers clues to understand what conflict really lead Ella’s father to murder his wife Anna.
The fact is Ella is not a very likeable character. She makes mistakes, takes hasty decisions that risk everything and acts on impulse. She refuses kindness while trying to scrape together a meager existence in order to shelter her son. Yet, I found myself rooting for Ella and her son, despite knowing all her flaws and literally witnessing her at her lowest.
The title WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS is a reference to the PTSD Ella suffers from. It’s unknown why Ella gets hit by the anxiety episodes that have rendered her incapable of holding down a normal job and fully taking charge of her life. Her body remembers the trauma yet her mind cannot comprehend it. This adds another layer of intrigue to Ella’s character and makes for a compelling mystery read.
Perhaps my empathy for the broken character came from the realization that, as portrayed in the novel, Denmark’s system of social services works against the disturbed child rather than help her gain the social stability that she deserves. Her only support is Rosa and Jens, a couple who suffers from alcoholism and can’t keep their own life together. This really made me question who, if anyone at all, looks after the tragically orphaned children who need additional psychological support, aside from a stable home.
I want to reiterate that WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS by Agnete Friis is light on the plot but it is a compelling psychological thriller on all other counts. What it lacks in terms of a real crime or police investigation it makes up for in the gripping experience of a mystery and character unraveled. If you read this book make sure it’s on a cool and cozy night with plenty of hot cocoa to drink, follow it with an episode of your favorite comedy show because chances are the melancholy will grow on you.
Do you enjoy literary thrillers? I’d love to know if you’re planning on reading WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS!
Disclaimer: The publisher kindly sent me a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review.