Review: The Girl Without Skin by Mads Peder Nordbo

Erich Mayer

There is much more to this novel than simply a thrilling murder mystery.
Review: The Girl Without Skin by Mads Peder Nordbo

Mads Peder Norbo’s The Girl Without Skin. Published by text Publishing.

Mads Peder Norbo’s hero in The Girl Without Skin is a Danish journalist, Matthew Cave, who has left Denmark for Greenland following the accidental death of his heavily pregnant wife. Now based in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, Matthew is employed as an investigative journalist by an online newspaper, Sermitsiaq. He is still shattered by his loss and immerses himself in his work. 

A mummified corpse is discovered in a remote location and then vanishes. This sets Matthew on the road to discovering how the corpse disappeared and why. In the process, he comes across four extremely gruesome unsolved murders that happened in 1973. The detailed description of one of these murders is not for the faint-hearted. Matthew begins to suspect that these old murders are connected to the disappearance of the corpse as well as to some other current disturbing events.

What follows is a thrilling mystery story, some of which takes place in the present, and some back in 1973. As Matthew begins to discover the truth he becomes the target of powerful people who feel threatened by what he may find, and consequently Matthew has more than one narrow escape from death. Fortunately, he also befriends a strange and very tough young woman, Tupaarnaq Siegstad, who ends up helping him.

Happily, though, there is much more to this novel than simply a thrilling murder mystery, as compelling as that is. The story gives Nordbo the excuse to describe not just a little Greenlandic history and politics, but also the climate and scenery. He marvels at the beauty of the sky, of the ocean and the mountains. He relishes the fresh air, is philosophical about the thick fog, he is dazzled by the beauty of ice gleaming in sunlight. He describes a ‘world of dwarf plants . . . crowberries, blueberries, thyme, dwarf willow, yellow lichen and small arctic flowers . . . like a soft prickly quilt covering the rock’. His descriptions are done so well, and with such enthusiasm and love, that the reader is beguiled and begins to understand how people cannot just survive such a harsh arctic climate but actually enjoy and live happily in it.

It is usual, and makes sense, for translators of novels to leave the names of people and places in the original language. However, this may result in the reader encountering, sometimes frequently, what on first sight is an unpronounceable or very strange name. This can have a couple of unfortunate effects: one is to stop the reader in their tracks as they decide on a pronunciation or anglicisation. Another is for the reader to forget the name so it doesn’t ring a bell when it is next encountered. In the case of The Girl Without Skin this effect is merely a minor irritation and a worthwhile price to pay for the privilege of reading a book originating in another language, particularly such a good one.

What at first glance might sound like an overly familiar plot turns out to be nothing of the sort in The Girl Without Skin – not only because of the unique and beautifully depicted setting, but also because of the skilful and memorable way Nordbo depicts the extremes of humankind, from the evil of murderers to Matthew’s resilient humanity. This is the first of Nordbo’s five novels to be published in English. Hopefully it will not be the last.

4 stars ★★★★
The Girl Without Skin
By Mads Peder Nordbo
Translated by Charlotte Barslund
Extent: 352pp
Format: Paperback
Text Publishing 
Publication date: 1 October 2018
ISBN: 9781925603835
AU Price: $29.99
Categories: Crime & Thriller

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog humblecomment.info