Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Norway, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Tarjei Vesaas, TBR40

‘The Ice Palace’ by Tarjei Vesaas

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 144 pages; 2018. Translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan.

Oh, what a strange and mysterious and intriguing and totally atmospheric little book this is!

First published in 1963 and translated into English in 1966, The Ice Palace was written by Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970), a poet and novelist widely regarded as one of Norway’s greatest writers of the 20th century. (According to the author biography in my edition, he wrote more than 25 novels and was nominated for the Nobel Prize 30 times!)

Set in rural Norway, presumably in the late 1950s/early 1960s, it focuses on two 11-year-old schoolgirls, Siss and Unn, who strike up an intense friendship.

Siss is the more outgoing of the pair and popular at school; Unn, a relative newcomer to the area following the death of her mother, is quiet, shy, reserved, preferring to stand on the sidelines and watch the other children having fun. But there’s something intriguing about her, and when she invites Siss home with her after school one day, to see the house she lives in with her aunt, it changes the course of both their lives.

Into the looking-glass

It starts with something as ordinary as a mirror. In the intimacy of Unn’s bedroom, the girls sit beside each other on the edge of the bed, holding a mirror between them, peering into it.

What did they see?
Before they were even aware of it they were completely engrossed.
Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking-glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. […]
They let the mirror fall, looked at each other with flushed faces, stunned. They shone towards each other, were one with each other; it was an incredible moment.
Siss asked: ‘Unn, did you know about this?’
Unn asked: ‘Did you see it too?’
At once things were awkward. Unn shook herself. They had to sit for a while and come to their senses after this strange event.

Unn then persuades Siss to get undressed with her, just for the fun of it. When they get cold they put their clothes back on and Unn asks an intriguing question: “did you see anything on me just now?” Siss says she did not. Unn then confesses she wants to tell Siss a secret, but changes her mind at the last moment. Siss, frightened of the awkwardness between them, runs home to her parents.

The next day, Unn is embarrassed about the evening before and decides to bunk off school so that she doesn’t have to explain herself to Siss. She heads off on a day-long excursion to explore the ice palace, a frozen waterfall, which she has heard the children at school discuss. When she finally gets there after a trek across a frozen lake, she looks into a deep ravine and sees an “enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery”.

All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone. The sun had not yet come, but it shone ice-blue and green of itself, and deathly cold.

Shouting with joy, Unn explores this magical castle, intrigued by its beauty and its strange labyrinth of rooms, but she gets lost within it and fails to return home.

Later that night a search party is organised, and Siss, distraught by the loss of her new friend, joins in. But despite the whole community looking day and night Unn is never found. There is pressure on Siss to explain what Unn might have told her the evening before she went missing, but Siss can only tell the adults around her what she knows: that Siss had a secret but did not share it.

When it becomes clear that it’s unlikely Unn will ever be found, Siss makes a promise never to forget her friend. Stricken by grief and loss she begins to take on some of Unn’s personality traits, becoming introverted and unsociable, abdicating her “most popular girl” position at school and choosing to stand on the sidelines watching her fellow students at play rather than participating herself.

The book ends with a small party of school children, including Siss, visiting the ice palace at the tail end of winter just as the ice is beginning to crack. When it collapses and falls away it takes all its secrets with it.

A simple, subtle tale

As Doris Lessing says in the review she wrote in 1993 (to mark the book’s reissue at that time), this is a simple, subtle tale, but it is unique and unforgettable.

Not much seems to happen and yet a lot *does* happen. Lots of questions are asked but very few are answered. It’s almost as if Vesaas wants the reader to do half the work, to formulate their own ideas about Unn’s secret and Siss’s strong reaction, to figure out what might have happened rather than being told.

The prose style is elegant and sparse, if slightly staid, and the descriptions — of the winter-rimed landscape, the frozen lake and the ice palace itself — are beautiful and evocative, conjuring up a magical winter wonderland.

But for all its strange beauty, the pace of the novella is slow and there is much repetition — of descriptions, feelings, thought processes — perhaps to mirror the nature of the seemingly endless search for Unn. And if you’re the type of reader who wants everything neatly tied up at the end, The Ice Palace may prove a frustrating read.

However, as a story about grief, loss and loneliness, The Ice Palace is a haunting tale about the frozen worlds of our own making.

This is my 14th book for #TBR40. I can’t quite remember how it came into my possession, but I think it was a review copy sent by Penguin. I do know I have owned it since December 2017, because I took a photo of its beautiful cover and posted it on Instagram that month!

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting, TBR40, Vintage Digital

‘Black Seconds’ by Karin Fossum

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 352 pages; 2008. Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund.

The disappearance of a young child and the ensuing police hunt is a well-worn trope in crime fiction. I’ve read so many crime tales of this nature I no longer bother with them, but I decided to make an exception for Karin Fossum’s Black Seconds, because she’s an author I can trust to cover such a crime in a compassionate, thoughtful way.

In the past I have read many of Fossum’s books, both her standalone titles and those that are part of her Inspector Sejer series, and she has an acutely perceptive eye on what happens after the crime is committed.

Her novels usually tackle the psychological impacts on both the victim’s family and the perpetrator, highlighting how criminal acts can never be seen in isolation and how they cast long shadows on a wide circle of people and the communities they inhabit. These themes are also present in Black Seconds.

Billed as Book 6 in the Inspector Sejer series, it stands up as a good read regardless of whether you’ve read any others, so don’t let the fact it’s part of a series put you off. (It may help to know that Inspector Sejer is a fairly low-key presence in these books because while they are essentially police procedurals, Fossum’s focus is not really on the police but the people caught up in the crime.)

Missing girl

In this story, set in rural Norway, nine-year-old Ida Joner doesn’t come home after a trip on her bike to buy her favourite magazine and some chewing gum. Weeks later her distinctive bright yellow bike is found abandoned, but Ida is still missing. Her single mother, Helga, can barely hold things together, even with her married younger sister Ruth by her side offering moral support.

Ruth’s own children, 12 year-old Marion and 18-year-old Tomme, are struggling to cope with the reality that their cousin is missing, while Ruth is worried about Tomme’s growing friendship with a local drug pusher and his admission that he crashed his car on the same night of Ida’s disappearance.

When Ida’s body does eventually turn up, the post-mortem reveals an unusual death, where nothing quite seems to add up. Figuring out how she died as well as who committed the crime is a major focus for Sejer and his colleague Jacob Skarre, but for the reader it’s pretty easy to figure out what happened and who did it.

The unhurried pace of the novel, written in Fossum’s typical sparse, bare-as-bones prose, may bore those looking for a thriller with twists and turns aplenty. That’s not what this book is about.

In its measured examination of those drawn into Ida’s orbit, whether they be family or otherwise, it reveals how crimes are not always malevolent or premeditated and that good people can make bad decisions with lifelong repercussions. It’s also a detailed look at the burdens of guilt and the psychological impact of living a life bound up in lies, as well as being a fascinating account of an inspector’s thought processes and empathetic tactics used to solve the crime.

Karin Fossum is always worth a read, and Black Seconds only cements that reputation in my mind.

This is my 10th book for #TBR40. I bought it on Kindle last October when it was just 99p (as part of a “deal of the day” offer on Amazon) and read it last week when I was looking for a “palate cleanser” after a steady diet of heavy literary fiction.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes’ by Per Petterson

Ashes-in-my-mouth

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 128 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes, first published in 1987, was Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s first book, yet it was only translated in 2013. Like many other successful authors who write in languages that are not English, his books have been translated out of order. This means that for fans like me — I’ve reviewed most of his work here — we have to read things out of chronological order. Not that it really matters: reading a Per Petterson novel is always a treat, regardless of when it was published, and this one is no exception.

The book, which is beautifully presented with French flaps and high-quality paper, comes in a small format paperback measuring 11.9cm x 16.6cm, making it perfect to fit in a handbag or, in my case, a bike bag. I toted it around with me for about a week and read a chapter each morning as I ate my  breakfast having cycled 6.5 miles into work. It was the perfect way to start to the day.

Introducing Arvid Jansen

Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes tells the story of Arvid, a character who features strongly in Petterson’s later novels, In the Wake (first published in 2000 and translated into English in 2007) and I Curse the River of Time (first published in 2008 but translated into English in 2010) and is said to be loosely based on Petterson himself.

In this debut novel, Arvid is a six-year-old boy living on the outskirts of Oslo in the 1960s. His world revolves largely around his working class parents — his Danish mother, who is a cleaner, and his father, a factory worker — his older sister Gry and his paternal uncle Rolf, who is a socialist.

Structured around 10 self-contained chapters, it reads a bit like a short story collection, but the unifying thread is Arvid’s unique take on the world coupled with his inability to comprehend the adult situations around him. His childhood naivety is utterly endearing, but there are also moments when you realise his honesty may work against him.

For example, in the opening chapter A Man Without Shoes, Arvid’s father loses his job as foreman in a shoe factory. He goes to Denmark to work in an office but returns six months later because he wasn’t “much of a paper pusher”. His brother Rolf gets him a job in a brush factory making toothbrushes, which he accepts begrudgingly, but even young Arvid knows there is no future in this line of work:

Shoes, on the other hand, there was a lot to say about them. Gym shoes, smart shoes, ladies’ shoes, children’s shoes, ski boots, riding boots. Dad talked a lot about shoes, and he knew what he was talking about. But now it was over. Now you couldn’t even say the word ‘sole’ aloud. If you did Dad would lose his temper.
‘In this house we wear shoes, we don’t talk about them, is that clear!’ he said, and then there was silence, although Arvid could easily see that his mother was annoyed by all the detours they had to take.

Later, his father throws out all the shoe samples and rolls of leather he had been given in his previous job in order to clear space in the cellar. He needs the space to store the toothbrush samples, which he now brings home from work.

‘That’s it, Arvid,’ Dad said with an ugly laugh and his face looked just like a rock. ‘Now I’m a man without shoes!’
‘I know,’ Arvid said. ‘Now you’re a man with toothbrushes!’
And even though he was only one metre fifteen tall and pretty slight, his voice was so heavy with scorn that at first his dad stared at him and then went into the kitchen, and he slammed the door after him.

Poignant snapshots of childhood

There are many scenes like this throughout the book in which Arvid says what everyone is thinking. This brings a rare poignancy to the tale, especially when you begin to “read between the lines” and come to understand that Arvid’s father is a difficult, slightly bitter character — he seems to have a fraught relationship with most adults in his life, including his wife, but especially with his brother, with whom he fights, sometimes physically — and even young Arvid, who adores him, is often afraid of him. Whether this explains Arvid’s bedwetting or his nightmares isn’t clear.

As the quotes above should show, it’s written in simple, unadorned prose, and yet the narrative brims with nostalgia and tenderness, and a painful kind of honesty shines through. It shows the world through a six-year-old’s eyes so evocatively and eloquently, it’s hard not to be “wowed” by Petterson’s skill as an author. Although the narrative is disjointed — it reads like a snapshot of Arvid’s childhood at various points in time rather than as one seamless flow working towards a climax — it’s a rather delightful, bittersweet read.

I really enjoyed Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes if only to appreciate the book that brought Petterson to Norway’s attention all those years ago.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting

‘The Drowned Boy’ by Karin Fossum

The-drowned-boy

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 256 pages; 2015. Translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reading a Karin Fossum novel is always a wonderful, almost meditative, experience. Even though she writes about horrible crimes, her compassion and intelligence shine through, and by the time you reach the final page you’re left feeling irrevocably changed — for the better.

Her latest, The Drowned Boy, is right up there among her best. It’s a police procedural, the 11th in her Inspector Sejer series, but don’t worry, it’s not necessary to read any of the others to “get” it — indeed, it’s strong enough to simply stand on its own.

Death of a toddler

The Drowned Boy follows Inspector Sejer’s investigation into the death of a toddler who drowned in a pond at the bottom of his parent’s property.

On the face of it, Tommy’s death appears to be a tragic accident — one minute he was playing quietly inside, the next he was found floating in the water — but something doesn’t quite add up. Or at least that’s what the police feel, including Sejer’s colleague Jacob Skarre.

‘We’ve got a drowning,’ Jacob Skarre told him. ‘In Damtjern, the pond up by Granfoss, you remember? About twenty minutes from Moller Church. A little boy, sixteen months old. His mother found him by the small jetty, but it was too late. The ambulance crew tried to resuscitate him for about three-quarters of an hour, to no avail. Some uncertainty as to how he ended up in the water. Also, he was naked, but we’re not quite sure what that means. […]
‘Right,’ he said. ‘I’m on my way. There in half an hour.’
And then, after a short pause: ‘Is there something that doesn’t feel right? Is that why you called?’
‘Yes,’ Skarre replied, ‘it’s the mother. I can’t explain it, but I think we should look a bit closer. Let’s just leave it at that, you know what I mean.’

As the police dig into the circumstances surrounding Tommy’s death, the relationship between the young parents, Carmen and Nicolai, begins to crumble under the focus of so much attention from the authorities and the weight of their grief.

Each deals with their pain in a different way: Carmen behaves as though everything is okay and is keen to have another child almost immediately, while Nicolai clams up and becomes insolent and withdrawn. This has wider repercussions on their relationships with friends and work colleagues, but it is when Carmen’s own family begin to turn against her that the alarm bells start ringing.

Did she or didn’t she kill her own son isn’t the real question here, because it’s pretty obvious from the start that the 19-year-old mother is guilty. The intrigue — and the narrative tension — is created by trying to figure out how she did it, why she did it, and will Sejer ever figure it out?

Fossum ratchets up the tension even further by having Sejer grapple with his own mortality: he’s been experiencing spells of dizziness and is frightened he might have cancer but refuses to seek medical advice.  As his investigation into the drowning unfolds, his own health worsens — will he be able to hold out long enough to see it to its rightful conclusion?

Typical Fossum fare

The Drowned Boy is typical Fossum fare. In writing about the terrible things that ordinary people are capable of doing, she is always careful never to sensationalise the crimes or cast judgement on her characters. Everything is carefully, quietly held in check — the police are compassionate, kind and patient; the people under investigation are all-too human — and this new novel is no exception. And yet I read it with a creeping feeling of unease. It’s a deeply unsettling story, one that feels so true it could have been lifted direct from the pages of a newspaper. Perhaps that’s why it’s such a riveting read.

The Drowned Boy will be published in the UK on 4 June.

Please note that Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer’s series has been translated out of order, so I haven’t been able to follow the series chronologically. The ones reviewed here are:  In the Darkness (first published in 1995, but only translated in 2013), Don’t Look Back (1996, trans 2003), Bad Intentions (2008, trans 2011) and The Caller (2009, trans 2012). All of them are excellent.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting

‘I Can See in the Dark’ by Karin Fossum

I-can-see-in-the-dark

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 250 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norweigan by James Anderson.

Norweigan writer Karin Fossum is best known for her Inspector Sejer series, but I Can See in the Dark, published last year, is a stand-alone novel.

A story about a troubled loner

The story is told entirely through the eyes of 40-something Riktor, who has no family of his own and lives by himself in a small house on the outskirts of town.

He holds down a good job as a nurse in an elderly person’s care home, gets on well with his colleagues and finds ways to fill in his time between shifts. In other words, he leads a rather dull, uneventful, but otherwise productive life.

But all is not as it seems. Riktor is terribly lonely and desperately craves love and attention.

I don’t really understand my own situation, I don’t understand this sense of always being an outsider, of not belonging, of not feeling at home in the day’s routines. Forces I can’t control have torn me away from other people. I like being on my own, but I want a woman. If only I had a woman!

But as his narrative gently unfolds over a succession of short, crisply written chapters, we begin to learn that Riktor is not the quiet, gentle soul one might expect. He’s actually a rather troubled man, who doesn’t know how to properly interact with other people. He also claims he can see in the dark (hence the title):

I can see bushes and trees, buildings, posts and fences, I can see them all vividly glowing and quivering, long after dark. I can see the heat they emit, a sort of orange-coloured energy, as if they’re on fire. I once mentioned this to the school nurse when I was about ten. That I could see in the dark. She simply patted me on the cheek and then smiled sadly, the way you smile at an inquisitive child with a lively imagination. But once bitten twice shy: I never mentioned it again.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of all is the way in which he is deliberately negligent in his job: he fails to give his patients the medicine they have been prescribed and he likes to torture them when he thinks no-one is looking.

Of course things catch up with him, and one day the police accuse him of killing a patient in his care. He is arrested and held on remand for an extended period of time.

But as ever with a Karin Fossum novel, there’s an unusual twist, because Riktor is caught in a dilemma: he definitely has blood on his hands, but the crime he has committed isn’t the one for which he’s been charged.

Inside the head of a disturbed man

The most intriguing aspect of the novel is the way in which Fossum puts you squarely in the head of Riktor, who is clearly simple-minded and a little bit odd. His morals are dubious and he lacks empathy, but he knows how to operate in society without drawing too much attention to himself. He is also clever enough to figure out what people are thinking and has learned how to manipulate them to get what he wants.

But at no point do you want to cheer him on: this is not a Patricia Highsmith character who is so bad he’s good; this is the type of person you know lives and breathes among us. Indeed, he quite often turns up on the news bulletins having murdered a friend or loved one because he didn’t get what he wanted.

I Can See in the Dark is not your average crime thriller. It’s not so much about the what happened, but the why it happened. By digging around in the mind of someone who hasn’t followed the conventions of socially acceptable human behaviour, Fossum tries to show us what makes him tick.

It might not be terribly fast-paced but it’s a low-key novel that shimmers with suspense throughout. It’s a brutally honest account of a man caught up in a world that he doesn’t understand and is a superb portrait of a psychologically damaged killer, one that is unflinching, thought-provoking and deeply unsettling.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, holocaust, literary fiction, Merethe Lindstrøm, Norway, Other Press

‘Days in the History of Silence’ by Merethe Lindstrøm

Days_in_the_history_of_silence

Fiction – paperback; Other Press; 224 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce.

A couple of wet and wild Fridays ago I managed to escape the office an hour early and treated myself to a little browse in Daunt Books on Cheapside. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but for some reason I was drawn to Merethe Lindstrøm’s Days in the History of Silence and kept picking it up.

I had never heard of the author, nor the book, but I decided I had to buy it. There was something about it which suited my mood and the mood of the weather — cold, damp, melancholic. As it turns out, it proved to be a rather morose but elegant and thought-provoking read, perfect for a rainy weekend.

A quiet life

The story is about a Norwegian couple, Eva and Simon, who are living quiet lives in retirement — he was a physician, she was a high school teacher. But this is no ordinary couple. They have spent their entire married life together keeping secrets from their children — three daughters, who are now grown up with families of their own.

The first is that Eva had a child out of wedlock before she met and married Simon —  she gave her son up for adoption when he was six months old and has never seen him since, although she has often thought about him and once tried to track him down (secretly, of course).

The second is that Simon is a Jew from Eastern Europe, whose family went into hiding when the Nazis came to power. He was the sole survivor of the Holocaust — everyone else he knew perished in the extermination camps — but he later discovered that he had a cousin living in Berlin, which revived traumatic memories and plunged him into a severe depression.

Now, in their later lives, Eva and Simon have another secret to keep: they have dismissed the home help they hired (under pressure from their daughters) for reasons they don’t wish to discuss.

Growing old

The story is narrated by Eva, so that we only ever hear her side of events, but it is clear she loves Simon very much and that she is worried about him — he has recently become incredibly reticent and is showing signs of dementia.

His silence came gradually over the course of a few months, half a year. He might say thanks for the meal or bye. He has become as formal as a hotel guest, seemingly as frosty as a random passenger you bump into on a bus. Only now and again do I see him standing gazing out the window or smiling at something he is reading or watching on television, and I think he is back. As though it really is a journey he has embarked upon. But if I ask what he is watching, what is amusing, he just looks at me uncomprehendingly. The physician, one of his junior colleagues, say he has quite simply become old. The solution, for of course there are solutions to situations like this, why should we consult a physician otherwise, is a centre for the elderly, a day care centre where Simon spends time twice a week.

Now the daughters are putting pressure on Eva to consider putting him in a home, something she tries to ignore for as long as possible. Meanwhile, she finds herself mourning the loss of Marija, the home help, whom she treated as a substitute daughter. All of this forces her to think about her life and her marriage, episodes of which are recalled flashback style in prose that is both elegant and incisive.

Failure to deal with the past

So, while the book is essentially about marriage and family — in particular, what it is to lose family members, whether by giving them up for adoption or having them die in the Holocaust — it’s also a heartfelt and moving treatise on growing old and what happens when we suppress memories or fail to talk about sensitive subjects for such a long time.

Admittedly, it isn’t a particularly cheerful read, but it’s an intimate portrait of an elderly woman grappling with her past and her future, trying to do the right thing for her own sake and the sake of her husband. I found it a highly focused and intelligent read, brimful of humanity, wisdom and psychological insight. It’s infused with a gentle melancholia and leaves one aching to be upfront and transparent with the ones you love.

Days in the History of Silence won the Norwegian Critics’ Prize for Literature in 2011 and the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 2012.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘In the Darkness’ by Karin Fossum

In-the-darkness

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 400 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Over the years I have read several of  Karin Fossum’s perceptive crime novels. In the Darkness, first published in her native Norway in 1995, has recently been translated into English for the first time. It is the first book in her landmark Inspector Sejer series.

A body in the river

The story focuses on single mother and struggling artist Eva Magnus. One sunny day she is walking along the river with her seven-year-old daughter, Emma, when they discover a man’s body in the water.

For a few moments they stood transfixed, staring at the sodden, decomposed body as it floated, head first, in amongst the stones. He was lying face down. The hair on the back of his head was thin and they could make out a bald patch. Eva […] looked at the waxen-coloured corpse with its matted blond hair and couldn’t remember seeing him before. But those trainers — those blue and white striped high-top trainers.

Emma urges her to phone the police, but when Eva finds a public phone box to make the call she only pretends to do so. Instead, she speaks to her father and makes no mention of what she has found. She then takes Emma to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal — and tries to ignore the body in the river.

Of course, the police eventually discover the man and it’s clear his death wasn’t the result of drowning: he had 15 stab wounds in his lower back, bottom and abdomen.

Investigations by Inspector Konrad Sejer and his colleague Karlson reveal that the man had been missing for six months. He was 38 years old, married and had a six-year-old son. He was last seen when he took his car to meet a prospective purchaser: the vehicle was later found abandoned in the municipal dump.

Was he the unwitting victim of a “desperado wanting money” or did he have a large debt or know something he shouldn’t have known?

A whydunnit, not a whodunnit

The unusual thing about this novel — and this is common in all of the Fossum novels I have read — is that it’s pretty obvious from the start who committed the crime. What you don’t know is how they did it — and why.

This is a particularly tricky approach to take but Fossum does it expertly without any loss of narrative tension. The first part of the book is a cat-and-mouse game as Sejer hones in on the likely suspect; the rest is told as a confession from the killer’s perspective. What you end up getting is a police procedural cum psychological thriller. Indeed, Fossum ratchets up the tension by throwing in the odd red herring — and then she delivers a real twist at the end which had me sucking in my breath in complete surprise.

And while In The Darkness is a shocking tale, Fossum treats her subject matter — poverty, prostitution and murder — with huge delicacy and compassion. There’s a real humanity to her writing, because she is interested in exploring the impact of the crime, not only on the victim’s family but on the perpetrator and, to a lesser extent, the police themselves.  It’s hard not to read this without feeling empathy for all the characters — guilty and innocent alike.

Finally, I just wanted to mention something about the poorly designed, rather drab cover of this particular paperback edition. The picture of a slim little girl on the front has absolutely nothing to do with the story (seven-year-old Emma is mentioned very briefly in this book and it is clear that she is a rather obese child, which doesn’t match the image used). And then there’s the roundel, which proclaims Fossum as a contemporary Patricia Highsmith — I’m not sure the two authors have much in common, aside from the fact they are both interested in the criminal mind. Does this kind of marketing bumpf really push sales?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Caller’ by Karin Fossum

Caller

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 296 pages; 2012. Translated from the Norwegian by K.E. Semmel. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Norwegian author Karin Fossum is quickly turning into one of my favourite crime writers. The Caller is her tenth novel in the Inspector Sejer series — and the third one I have read. Even though the books feature the same detective they are not strictly police procedurals. Instead Fossum’s perceptive — and empathetic — eye turns towards the perpetrator and the victims as she explores the cause and effect of often horrendous crimes.

A baby drenched in blood

The Caller begins in spectacular fashion when an odd crime is carried out. A young couple, Lily and Karsten Sundelin, are eating a meal indoors while their baby sleeps peacefully in her pram in the garden. When Lily goes to bring baby Magrete inside she feels a terrible foreboding. The baby is drenched in blood. The understandably distraught parents assume she is bleeding from the mouth and rush her to hospital. But once she is checked over, the nurses reveal the baby is unharmed — and that the blood is not hers.

Cue a police investigation, headed by Inspector Sejer and his colleague, Jacob Skarre. Had Lily or Karsten done something to upset someone? Was this an act of revenge? Had a former jealous partner wanted to scare them? Or was it a woman who had lost her child in a terrible way?

Later that evening Sejer finds a hand-delivered postcard on his doorstep bearing the message: “Hell begins now”. It has a glossy photograph of a wolverine on the front. “There will be more attacks,” he tells his colleague. “We’re dealing with a beast of prey.”

And he is right: this shocking incident turns out to be the first in an increasingly bizarre string of brazen and cruel “pranks” that terrorises a wide cast of unsuspecting victims. The book charts the ensuing cat and mouse game between the perpetrator and Sejer and Skarre, who try to track him down.

Portrait of a tormentor

It’s not a plot spoiler to reveal that the perpetrator is a young man, Johnny Beskow, who still lives at home with his alcoholic mother, whom he loathes. We meet him in chapter 4 and we discover how he chooses his victims, and why.

But Fossum does not paint things in black and white: Beskow may be carrying out criminal acts, he may wish his mother was dead, he may be filled with malice — but there are reasons for his warped worldview. And he’s not without the capacity to love: he dotes on his elderly grandfather, whom he visits regularly, and the caged guinea pig he keeps in his bedroom.

Essentially The Caller is not a whodunit, but a whydunit: what makes a young man carry out such spiteful crimes on random victims? And will he eventually get his comeuppance?

The human cost of crime

This neatly structured book interleaves Beskow’s storyline with that of the police investigation and that of the victims, both before and after the crime is carried out — it is fascinating to see how the Sundelin’s marriage begins to crumble as each partner copes with the crime in different ways; Karsten is angry and eaten up by a desire for revenge; Lilly’s fragile vulnerability turns her into a nervous wreck and she can no longer function normally. And it is equally fascinating to see how Beskow rationalises his actions — and how his conscience begins to bother him.

But it is the exquisitely planned plot which makes this novel an exceptional one: the impossible-to-guess double-twist ending left me gasping in shock.

Ripe with intelligence, suspense and psychological insight, The Caller is the cleverest and most involving crime book I’ve read this year.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘It’s Fine By Me’ by Per Petterson

Its-fine-by-me

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 208 pages; 2011. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.

The master of Scandinavian melancholy returns, this time with a novel that was originally published in his native Norway almost 20 years ago but which has only recently been translated into English. That means the story predates To Siberia (1996), In The Wake (2000), Out Stealing Horses (2003) and I Curse The River of Time (2004), all of which have been reviewed rather favourably on this blog.

Growing up in the 1960s

The story is told by Audun Sletten, a first person narrator, and is divided into four parts — the first and third when Audun is 13; the second and fourth when he is 18.

Petterson uses clever “signposting” — Jimi Hendrix’s death; mod-style haircuts; references to the The Kinks, The Hollies and the Rolling Stones — to give the story a distinctive 1960s flavour.

When the book opens Audun is attending a new school for the first time. He arrives half an hour late — “I got lost” — and is hiding behind sunglasses because he has “terrible scars around my eyes”. His headmaster introduces him to his class as follows:

“This is Audun Sletten, the new boy I’m sure you have heard about. He’s come to us from the countryside so please give him a warm welcome. He, too, likes the Beatles. Don’t mind the sunglasses. They’re glued to his nose.”

This sense of embarrassment only worses when, later that day, his class teacher asks him to “tell us something about what it’s like where you come from”. For unexplained reasons Audun is deeply offended by the question. He gets up from his desk, grabs his schoolbag and attempts to walk out.

This reaction only begins to make sense when you learn of Audun’s early life — the things he would rather keep to himself — as the narrative unfolds in a deliberately slow and careful way, swinging between his early and late teens.

Character-driven storyline

Plot-wise not much happens, although there are certain personal events — the death of Audun’s younger brother, the pregnancy of his older sister, the abandonment of the entire family by his father — that punctuate the storyline. It’s Fine By Me is more a character study of a young boy growing up and taking responsibility for himself, culminating in him leaving school and taking a  job in a printing press.

And yet the story is not a passive one — there is high drama here, and many scenes of brutality and violence, all told in Petterson’s characteristic understated style.

Audun’s world is dark and lonely and often painful, but there are moments of wit and unexalted joy that lighten the mood. For every bully and mean-spirited person he meets, there are others who are generous and kind.

Not surprisingly, as the earliest of Petterson’s novels to be translated into English (there are two more from 1987 and 1989 awaiting translation) It’s Fine By Me is far from his strongest work. Nevertheless,  it is an intriguing story featuring all of the Petterson quirks — charm, melancholy, loneliness, the rifts between parents and children, the bonds between siblings and friends — told in his typically restrained, some might say flat, prose. It’s probably not the book for first-time Petterson readers, but for fans it’s a fascinating look at the genesis of his award-winning criticially acclaimed career.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Linn Ullmann, literary fiction, Norway, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Sweden

‘A Blessed Child’ by Linn Ullmann

Blessed-child

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 307 pages; 2009. Translated from the Norwegian by Sarah Death.

Proving that there’s more to Scandinavian literature than crime novels, Linn Ullmann’s A Blessed Child is an absorbing family drama about three half-sisters — Erika, Laura and Molly — who spend their summers together on the Swedish island of Hammarsö.

Here, under the watchful eye of their bad-tempered and seemingly indifferent father, Isak, and his second wife, Rosa (Laura’s mother), they enjoy a carefree existence. But during the summer of 1979 a terrible event occurs that changes the girls’ lives forever — and puts paid to their family vacations on the island.

A literary suspense novel

The problem with writing a review of this novel is that it’s hard to say anything more without giving away crucial plot spoilers. The book works as a kind of literary suspense novel because the reader knows from the outset that something bad happens during one of these vacations, but you’re not sure what it is (my initial guess was way off the mark), and so to say anything more would destroy that magic.

The novel is divided into five parts. In the first we meet Erika, the eldest half-sister, who is now middle-aged and determined to visit her 84-year-old father for possibly the last time.

It is 2005 and Isak, a retired gynecologist who made his name as a pioneer of ultrasound, lives alone in the old summer house on Hammarsö, where he moved permanently after Rosa’s death in the early 1990s. After the funeral he made several “noises” about killing himself — “the pills had been procured, the deed carefully planned” — but he never did so.

Recollections of the past

Now as Erika makes the long trek by car, through snow, she recalls her summers with her father — the first was in 1972 — and her rather complicated relationship with him. And she also thinks about her own life, separated from her second husband, who left her, and how much she hates her first husband, a miser who cringed if he ever had to open his wallet.

This forms the pattern of the novel, as each sister takes it in turns to make the journey to Hammarsö — Laura and Molly end up travelling together — recounting the past, focussing especially on their childhood summers, and re-examining their relationship with Isak.

These narrative threads combine to form a rich tapestry of lives and emotions and bonds between siblings, and, in particular, the relationship between fathers and daughters. But because Ullmann expertly contrasts the past with the present, the reader can see how each sister has grown and changed and been shaped by her experiences. You can appreciate the shifting alliances and the nursed hurts and the ways in which personalities have altered as a result of the terrible incident at the heart of this novel. And you can see, too, how each woman has developed traits similar to her father.

Beautiful prose

Ullmann, who is the daughter of actress, author and director Liv Ullmann and director and screenwriter Ingmar Bergman, writes beautifully — and the expert translation by Sarah Death means you would never know the book was originally written in Norwegian. It feels natural and seamless, almost as if it was English from the very start.

As with most Scandinavian novels, the narrative is deeply tied to the landscape, nature and the seasons. The beauty of Hammarsö in summer is a major focus — the woods, the sea, the long grass by the dunes — and the ways in which people’s lives are put at the mercy of the elements — wind, storms and the raging ocean.

But Ullmann’s greatest strength is her ability to write candidly and truthfully about adolescence. There are aspects of Erika’s story which are deeply affecting but later turn to alarm as she navigates her sexuality for the first time and tries to hide her affection for a local boy, who is regularly bullied, from the bitchy teenage crowd she has fallen in with.

A Blessed Child, Ullmann’s fourth novel (a fifth novel, The Cold Song, was published last year), was shortlisted for the Brage Prize in 2005, was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2009.