Blog tour: The Guests by Agnes Ravatn, translated by Rosie Hedger

The Guests

This post is part of a blog tour organised by Random Things Blog Tours. I received a free copy of the book in return for an honest review.

‘Married couple Karin and Kai are looking for a pleasant escape from their busy lives, and reluctantly accept an offer to stay in a luxurious holiday home in the Norwegian fjords.

‘Instead of finding a relaxing retreat, however, their trip becomes a reminder of everything lacking in their own lives, and in a less-than-friendly meeting with their new neighbours, Karin tells a little white lie…

‘Against the backdrop of the glistening water and within the claustrophobic walls of the ultra-modern house, Karin’s insecurities blossom, and her lie grows ever bigger, entangling her and her husband in a nightmare spiral of deceits with absolutely no means of escape…’

The Guests

In The Guests, by Agnes Ravatn, middle-aged, lower middle-class Karin and Kai find themselves spending a week in a high spec holiday cabin in the Norwegian fjords.

The cabin belongs to Iris, Karin’s glamorous old school nemesis, who insists they borrow it — on the condition that joiner Kai builds her a new jetty — after Karin does her a good turn in spite of herself.

Once there, Karin happens across literary darling Hilma Ekhult and her more populist husband, Per Sinding, who own the next cabin along. After a spiky initial encounter with Per, Karin makes herself out to be more rich and successful than she really is.

Suddenly, the writers want to get to know Karin and Kai after all. Can Karin maintain the illusion for their entire stay? And are Per and Hilma as blessed with fortune as they appear?

I found The Guests a quick, entertaining read. Largely set in and around two neighbouring holiday cabins, with a theme of social class differences, and told through a combination of direct speech and Karin’s meandering inner monologue, it would make a good stage play.

While the interactions between the characters, Karin’s fabrications, and the hole she consequently digs for herself and Kai are funny and suggest the story is farcical in nature, there’s a lot going on in terms of character depth and development, especially when it comes to the narrator.

Ravatn recognises that people can hold a number of seemingly contradictory opinions, and vacillate between them from minute to minute. Accordingly, it’s very realistic that Karin displays both envy of, and contempt for, people who have “better” lives than her, and is sometimes able to acknowledge that what she has is good enough, and even suits her.

While Karin’s resentment, paranoia, and obsessive hate of a woman she’s barely seen in 25 years can occasionally make her a bit annoying and dislikeable — there were times when I just wanted to grab her by the shoulders and tell her to chill out! — I couldn’t bring myself to judge her that harshly.

After all, I can be that person as well, occasionally falling into a bitter spiral because my life doesn’t look like some of my peers’, even though many of the markers of status they have don’t actually align with what I want for myself.

I could additionally identify with Karin’s high school strategy of dropping out of the competition to be part of the “in” crowd, or top of the social tree, and trying to keep her head down and make as few waves as possible.

Furthermore, Karin doesn’t come across as a bad person overall. For example, she can’t seem to stop herself being polite and helpful, even towards Iris, and doesn’t want to cause real harm to Per and Hilma, just take them down a peg or two.

While some might consider Karin’s habitual mode of people-pleasing “fake”, I see it more as keeping the social wheels oiled — possibly a continuation of her way of keeping herself “safe” at school — and/or a mark of social conditioning to avoid conflict and be useful and compliant, in order to be liked. These are also behaviours I can relate to.

Plus, it’s clearly unusual for Karin to lie and pretend to be someone she isn’t; encountering Iris for the first time in so long seems to bring out the worst in her. Karin feels uncomfortable and guilty about deceiving Per and Hilma from the off, and these feelings only increase as she comes to know them and their situation.

The Guests is an entertaining yet deep, sharply-observed comedy of manners.

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About Alice Violett

Writer of blogs and short stories, reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK