Raven Black by Ann Cleeves

Raven Black (Shetland, #1)Raven Black by Ann Cleeves

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

This was my second attempt to read Raven Black, several years after my first try, and it demonstrates how sometimes when you read a book can make all the difference.
The first time I began this mystery, set in the Shetland Islands of Scotland, I found the opening chapter vivid and atmospheric, but with an “ick” factor, implying that perhaps the character of Magnus was a child molester. I stopped reading because of that, but always wondered about the book, especially as I continued to see the novels of Ann Cleeves winning awards and being made into television programs.
Fast forward several years, and my life-long obsession with Scotland, Ireland, and England, has grown to ever greater proportions. Having currently been on a Scottish Islands and Highlands kick, I took a second look at Raven Black. This mystery, which follows the investigation of a teenage girl’s murder, really delivered the sense of place, and of contemporary culture, that I had hoped to experience.
One of my favorite things about Raven Black was the evocative and sensory writing style. Author Ann Cleeves manages to convey the bleak beauty of the icy landscape, making vivid use of colors, the black of the ravens and of night, the white of the snow and the winter sky, and the red of blood. In this novel, you feel Shetland, rather than simply see it.
I also enjoyed the main detective, Jimmy Perez. Self described as emotionally incontinent, someone who falls in love with, or cares too easily about, other people, he is a welcome relief from the hardened, cynical detectives so popular in contemporary crime fiction. Jimmy is clearly a small-town guy, and one who feels things deeply, but he is also logical, intelligent, and determined. He is imperfect, but in different ways than the stereotypical jaded cop.
Raven Black is a slow read, and to me, its greatest strengths are sense of place, and creation of compelling characters. I would not categorize it as a thriller, and not even really as a suspense novel. Although it was a murder mystery, I never felt much of a sense of impending danger. In part, this was because the reader was never witness to a murder. The closest we got to violence was when a body was discovered, or when the heartbreaking truth of what had led to a crime was revealed.
Raven Black was more about the effects of isolation, of bullying, and of prejudice, than about violence. The real focus in Raven Black is Shetland and its people, who live within the often discordant traditions of an insular, rural life, victorian romantic notions of Viking pride, and current monetary and environmental issues brought on as a result of an economy affected by the oil industry.
Like the character of Jimmy Perez himself, the Shetland of today is complicated, and struggling to stay authentic, without losing relevance.
I finished reading Raven Black with a warm feeling for the Shetland Islands and those who live there. I appreciate how Ann Cleeves chose to portray the islands; she clearly loves Shetland, but she does not shy away from the downsides that living there also contain.
And I think that Cleeve’s portrayal is relevant in many ways, in that it mirrors life in many places around the world today, in which traditional communities are evolving with the spread of technology and computers. The story of Shetland and its inhabitants is particular, but is also universal. How can one be true to one’s roots, without becoming irrelevant, or facing poverty? When does profiting from tourism become selling out, when do traditions lose their authenticity? How does one pick apart the threads of ancestral pride from that of prejudice, or from fear of outsiders?
If these themes interest you, or if you want a literary escape to the Shetland Islands, I highly recommend Raven Black. I plan to read more of this series, and wait hopefully for the television program Shetland to become available for the American viewing public.

View all my reviews

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. cleopatralovesbooks
    May 18, 2014 @ 13:04:08

    Great review, I too struggled with this and didn’t finish it the first time, I recently watched this particular story on TV and wondered quite why I didn’t take to it the first time. I have another of this series on my bookshelf which I’m going to try now.


  2. Hannah
    May 18, 2014 @ 13:27:33

    Very cool! Let me know what you think 🙂


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