With the release of The Commandments—his first book to be translated into English—Oskar Gudmundsson came out of the gate swinging, making it clear that he was an author who would not shy away from challenging subject matter, writing in a style that is brutal and unflinching but with a lyrical nature that seemingly floats across the page. This a particularly apt description as his newly translated novel, The Dancer, centers on the tightknit ballet community—which crime readers have seen to be both vicious and unrelenting in works like The Turnout by Megan Abbott and Erin Kelly’s Watch Her Fall.

The Dancer is set in Iceland in 1982. It is the story of Tony, a young man who has never had an easy road. While the narrative itself spans only one week—seven days—in early December, it is very much in the Bildungsroman tradition. While on the surface it might seem that Tony’s coming-of-age has progressed rapidly, the reader sees the necessary flashbacks to ground them in Tony’s world, helping to explain the tragic nature of what is about to occur.

A brief pause here is necessary to say that The Dancer is not a book for the faint of heart. If you can imagine the darkest noir tale you are familiar with, this novel will likely make that book feel like a vacation visit to see Jessica Fletcher in Cabot Cove. In particular, trigger warnings related to child abuse, animal cruelty, and mental breakdowns are necessary for such an unflinching look at the horrors faced by some individuals growing up in our harsh world.

Tony’s mother, Gunnhildur, was on the path to a becoming a celebrated professional ballerina when an unfortunate accident derails her plans. As so often happens, in order to deal with her disappointment and depression, she foists her career aspirations onto her only child, without thought for what Tony might want.

Readers enter the story much later in this timeline on the day that Tony stumbles upon a meeting with other youth dancers preparing for an upcoming rehearsal at the National Theater. Finally feeling seen and on the cusp of discovering his own sexuality, Tony’s emotions are at a heightened level. So when a bully from his past enters the picture, it’s clear that the ramifications are going to be devastating (and very likely violent.)

The Dancer clocks in at only 200 pages, but please don’t take this to imply a quick or easy read. Some of these pages have more critical plot developments than readers might find in some other entire novels. The Dancer is a dense book with a style all its own. Translated by talented writer Quentin Bates, the book never feels like a chore to read, but likely will need to be digested in smaller doses over a longer time period—with much reflection happening between sessions.

There are no easy answers in The Dancer. Countless heated debates will commence just trying to figure out who the true villain of the piece is. There are also two police investigators—Valdimar and Ylfa—who are looking into the suspicious death of Tony’s father (and eventually some other interconnected crimes) and it seems that they may be continuing characters that will link together a new series of novels from Oskar Gudmundsson.

Due to the violent nature of The Dancer and the high level of erotic energy that provides fuel for the fire, this is not a novel that will find universal appeal. But it is a daring work that refuses to sugarcoat the tragic journeys some characters are forced to endure through no fault of their own. Oskar Gudmundsson is a writer willing to take risks in the service of a story and many readers will look forward to future translations of his novels.

BUY LINKS: The Dancer by Oskar Gudmundsson

Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the translator. No promotion was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.