In recent years I’ve often felt on top of the world, but I also know what it’s like to teeter on the edge of the precipice, unsure whether I could save myself. Six years ago, I was an author with two conspiracy thrillers under my belt; both were bestsellers in Denmark and my path as a writer seemed set. But a few short moments, out walking with my 11-year-old daughter on an ordinary summer’s day, changed everything.
We would often take a stroll past an abandoned sawmill near our house – something we’d been doing all my daughter’s life. Our house was built more than a century ago by the owner of the sawmill, and even though it didn’t come with the house when we bought it, we would laugh about it being ours.
On that particular day we heard strange scrabbling noises coming from outbuildings that made up the sawmill. It sounded as if an animal was trapped in there. I let go of my daughter’s hand and walked up to one of the broken windows to look inside. The scraping stopped and we moved on. Moments later, I felt my daughter squeeze my hand. She had glanced over her shoulder and had seen a man look out of a door next to the window that I’d peered through. She didn’t tell me this until we got back home because his face had scared her, she said. He looked old and frightening to her – and his eyes has been staring directly into hers.
I dismissed the incident, thinking it was probably just a couple of drunks who had taken shelter there, but the next day the old sawmill was teeming with police cars, detectives and dogs. One of the officers told me that a woman had been brutally murdered in there the day before. I realised that I had heard the sounds of this murder – and that my daughter had seen the woman’s killer. My daughter might even be able to identify him. That night the police put armed guards outside our house.
Luckily, the killer was soon arrested, so there was no immediate threat to myself and my daughter, but I could not get the events of that day out of my mind. I was tormented by the thought that I might have been able to save the woman, if only I’d investigated further – though the police told me that heavy iron bars bearing the killer’s fingerprints had been found behind the door, and that he would probably have attacked me if I had tried to help her.
This led to a fresh thought: what if he had killed me? What would have happened to my daughter, who was only a few feet away? Would he have struck her with the iron bar as well? A total stranger could have snuffed out my daughter’s life and I wouldn’t have been able to stop him. We had been only a few steps and a single decision away from this scenario.
Both my daughter and I were supposed to be witnesses in court, but it never came to that – the man took his own life while he was in custody. A tragic outcome, but for us it was a relief that our daughter would not have to meet him in court, and there was no doubt about his guilt. He had tried to kill the woman in three different ways before succeeding. It was the first meeting between him and the woman. We will never know why he killed her.
My daughter in many ways handled the episode far better than me – nowadays we enjoy walking through the sawmill as much as we did before. I think she coped better because her mother and I, and the police, all shielded her from the worst, and made sure we talked through with her what she had seen and heard. She still sometimes speaks about it now.
For me it was different. Almost without noticing, the experience affected me more and more deeply. My thoughts often ran out of control and I didn’t sleep properly for two years. Before long I fell apart. I wouldn’t say I developed writer’s block, it was more like a life block. My next novel flopped, my marriage was in trouble and, to cap it all, I was fired from my day job as a magazine editor. But none of these things was the real problem. The underlying cause was my fear for my daughter’s safety.
My salvation came in the most unexpected form. My wife was offered an exciting opportunity to work in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, more than 2,000 miles away. I decided to go with her. This was a bold decision, as many Danes have sought a new life in Greenland and failed, but I was lucky enough to land a job at Nuuk’s town hall. Starting over in the Arctic in the midst of a profound personal crisis was a ridiculous thing to do, but sometimes jumping into the deep end pays off. Life in the Arctic did indeed turn out to be absolutely the right thing for me – and my family, too. Although my marriage ultimately ended, my wife and I have remained close friends.
Life in Nuuk was quite unlike anything I had experienced before. You are cut off not only from the world but also from the rest of Greenland, as the towns and villages are not connected by roads. Internet and mobile phone coverage is often poor, and many areas have no coverage at all. The pace of life is dictated by the weather, not the clock. If you can forget about the restraints of our time-driven world and accept the tranquillity and isolation of the Arctic, you can find a deep sense of peace.
This isolation is also one of the joys of life: you learn that you are only human, and if you have existed in a state of crisis for several years, it does you good to be shaken up by forces far greater than you. You know where you are – that’s what’s so beautiful about it all. If you let go and surrender to the natural world, to the isolation, you will know true serenity. As I absorbed this new way of life, fresh stories came to me.
Walking in Greenland is like walking through an infinite world of words. I was released from the dark thoughts that had haunted me for years as, little by little, this new environment helped me to heal. I wasn’t really aware of it, because it happened slowly during my first year up there. One day, for no obvious reason, I sat down at my computer and started writing again. After suffering from some kind of writer’s block, this was an enormous relief.
Rather than return to the themes of my earlier books, I now wanted to expose the highlights and dark depths of this unique society and its people. In Greenland I had seen some of the best and the worst of human behaviour, and what people are capable of doing to themselves and others. Through my work in local government, I had begun to appreciate Greenland’s complex political history, its global significance and its desire for independence from Denmark – a desire that could soon have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the world, because of the political and military instability that an independent and exposed Greenland would cause in the Arctic region.
Although remote and sparsely populated, this mass of ice has long been the backdrop to the impossible and deeply painful clash between human and political aspirations. These themes are now at the heart of my writing. The result is my latest book, which has been sold around the world. It’s more than I could ever have dreamed of, and for that I’m truly grateful. I have no doubt that I owe my career as a writer to the darkness of life and the light of Greenland.
And now I am back where I started. My daughter and I have just returned to Denmark after four years in Greenland. Once again, we live in our old house just opposite the sawmill. This is our home in the little town where both of us were born, which I once considered one of the safest places on earth – and now I can again. And it fills my heart with joy to see my daughter here today – so happy, full of spirit and most of all – alive. Along the way I have learned and can almost accept that I can’t protect her from all the evil in the world. I can try, and I can do my very best for her, but I can’t control the darkness.
The Girl Without Skin by Mads Peder Nordbo is out now and published by Text Publishing at £10.99. To buy it for £9.67. go to guardianbookshop.com