the long water

stef penney

As the search for Daniel widens, the police open a disused mine in the mountains. They find human remains, but this body has been there for decades, its identity a mystery.

The story is told through characters impacted by these events: misanthropic Svea, whose long life in the area stretches back to the heyday of the mines, and beyond. She has cut all ties with her family, except for her granddaughter, Elin, a young misfit. Elin and her friend Benny, both impacted by Daniel while alive, become entangled in the hunt for answers, while Svea has deep, dark secrets of her own.

At the tail end of 2021, I was presented with an unusual proposal: would I like to very quickly write a novel set in northern Norway? Strictly without going there… by communicating with local residents and somehow involving them in the writing process (this part was very vague). Oh, and it would have to be published in 2024, to tie in with the city of Bodø being the European Capital of Culture.

Initially, I thought, no, of course not. 2024 is only two years away. I take five years to write a book, and I never show anything to anyone before it’s finished because if I did, it might crumble to dust in my hands. So, thank you, but no.

Bodø is in the arctic. The landscape around it is extraordinary. Wild, dramatic, almost entirely pristine. The county of Nordland stretches from north of Trondheim to Narvik, leapfrogging the Arctic Circle as it goes. It includes the Lofoten Islands, and a lot of other islands. It has mountains and fjords. It has ice caps and Norway’s second largest glacier, whose name is The Black Ice.

I kept looking at photos and reading about its history, even though I wasn’t going to do it. Because it was a crazy idea, and I already had my next idea for a book lined up. But I couldn’t stop looking, and reading and thinking about it. Then I said yes.

In March 2022 a call went out on the Bodø 2024 website to Nordlanders to send in tips, stories, anecdotes, memories, photos – anything really. We held writing workshops on Zoom for young people, asking them to describe a day in midwinter, or their grandparents, or the Russ celebration for school leavers – a unique Norwegian institution which wormed its way into the story.

It has been an often puzzling but fascinating process: trying to tease out those things that strike a chord, that resonate enough to set ideas growing and crystallising. The character of Elin, a neurodivergent 16-year old, came to me in the middle of the night. Other characters began to cluster around her, with their own wants and fears and secrets. Some of them bear the names of locals who generously offered up their identities for my unknown ends. Ultimately I wrote what I wanted to write (how would you do anything else?), but without that initial, unlikely-seeming proposal, I would never have discovered this place and these characters, and I would not have written this book – that I love.

Nordland. A region in the Norwegian Arctic;

a remote valley that stretches from the sea

up to the mountains and the glacier of the Blue Man.

It is May. In Nordland it's a time of spring and

school-leavers' celebrations - until Daniel, a popular teenage boy, goes missing. Conflicting stories

circulate among his friends, of parties and wild behaviour.

Link to Bodø 2024 website