Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 320 pages; 2009. Translated from Swedish by McKinley Burnett. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Karin Alvtegen is a Swedish crime writer whose body of work — five novels at last count — has earned her critical acclaim and several awards and award nominations, including the Glass Key award in 2001 (for Missing) and the Goldpocket 2004 (for Betrayal). Her latest novel, Shadow, has already earned her the Danish Academy of Crime Writers´Award (The Palle Rosenkrantz Prize 2008) for Best Crime Novel in Denmark. It has also been shortlisted for the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers’ Award 2007 for Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year.
So, when a review copy thudded through my letterbox last month courtesy of Canongate, I was quite looking forward to getting stuck into it. I’m happy to report it didn’t disappoint. In fact, psychological crime thrillers don’t come much better than this.
Shadow takes two seemingly random events — the abandonment of a four-year-old boy left on the steps of a theme park, and the death, more than 30 years later, of an old lady whose freezer is stocked with carefully wrapped and signed books by a famous Nobel Prize-winning author — and traces their connection. It sounds like a bizarre premise for a book, but in Altvtegen’s hands these divergent threads slowly but surely become entwined in a surprising and ultimately shocking way.
At first I found the story a little slow to get going, but the book works by ratcheting up the tension in a gradual but steady way, drawing out the suspense to the point where it almost becomes unbearable, you simply want to race to the end to find out what happens. The multi-layered plot, involving betrayal and murder between family members and colleagues, is so expertly put together that the ending is almost impossible to guess — a fine indication, if nothing else, of Alvtegen’s superb talent as a writer. This surprise denouement, however, makes it difficult to review Shadow without giving the plot away.
The characterisation is also very good, even if all the characters seem quite similar: weak-willed and sex-starved, lacking courage but desperate to find a way out of their current predicament. In fact, none of them are particularly likable but they are all empathetically drawn and seem all the more human and hence believable for this.
Essentially Shadow is a story about dark family secrets, but it also looks at the price of fame and how the search for public approval can drive some people to make unsound decisions that have long-lasting and occasionally tragic repercussions. It also examines the impact of our childhood on the rest of our adult lives, whether abandoned or ignored by our parents or left to grow up in a Nazi concentration camp, and how small moments in time can have monumental consequences.