Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Henning Mankell, Maclehose Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Sweden, TBR 21

‘The Rock Blaster’ by Henning Mankell

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 2020. Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding.

Before Swedish author Henning Mankell became a crime fiction superstar he penned this quietly devastating novel first published in 1973 but only recently translated into English.

The Rock Blaster tells the story of a young man, Oskar Johansson, who is seriously injured in an industrial accident blasting rock with dynamite to make way for a road. He’s not expected to survive — indeed, the local newspaper reports him dead — but he defies the odds, albeit losing an eye and a hand, and manages to return to work as an invalid after he has recuperated.

A working-class hero

The novel charts Oskar’s life from the time of the accident, in 1911, to his death as an old man in 1969. A second thread, which is interleaved throughout, charts the sociological and political changes that occur during Oskar’s lifetime to build up a mesmerising portrait of one man and his place in history.

The story of Oskar is like an iceberg. What you see is only a small part. Most of it is hidden under the surface. That is where the bulk of the ice is, keeping its balance in the water and making its speed and course steady.

Oskar’s life story details his romance with a local girl before the accident to his marriage to that girl’s sister after the accident. Children are born. Jobs are held. Political parties are joined. Activism ensues. There are ups and downs, deprivations and small joys. Grief. Loss. Retirement. Solitude.

His experiences are presented as a series of flashbacks, interviews with an unnamed narrator and other fragments, and it is written in gentle, hypnotic prose, with nary a word wasted.

In early April in 1949, Oskar buys a propaganda poster¹. It is one of the most famous ones, the most widely disseminated and translated, but above all perhaps the most effective graphic analysis of the capitalist system ever published. It is the well-known pyramid, which was first printed in the USA in about 1910.

Fuelled by a sense of social justice and moral outrage, The Rock Blaster rails against capitalism and the ways in which the system uses the working classes to prop up the entire economic edifice of mid-20th century society.

Fight for a cause

I adored this novel. There’s something sublimely honourable about it. I loved the way it puts the working class centre stage and highlights how it is up to every single one of us to fight for what we believe in, to speak up against wrongs and to forge our own path in life. It tapped into my own sense of social justice and made me angry on Oskar’s behalf.

I’m so glad it finally got translated into English — even after all this time (47 years!) so much of this novel is relevant today.

1. You can view that poster on Wikipedia

This is my 18th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book store in August 2020.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Children/YA, Christoffer Carlsson, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, Sweden

‘October is the Coldest Month’ by Christoffer Carlsson

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 181 pages; 2017. Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

A teenage girl unwittingly caught up in a terrible crime is the focus of Christoffer Carlsson’s young adult novel October is the Coldest Month.

Set in Sweden, it tells the story of 16-year-old Vega Gillberg, who lives with her widowed mother, a nightshift worker, and an older brother, Jakob, in a working-class community in Småland, an area known for its huge forests and bogs.

When the police knock on the door looking for Jakob, Vega knows exactly why they want to question him, but she hasn’t seen him for days and she figures he’s gone into hiding — with good reason.

As the story gently unfolds piece by piece, we come to learn of the crime, but Carlsson holds his cards close to his chest and never fully reveals the motive, nor the culprit, until the final pages. It makes for an intriguing, atmospheric read.

Teenage narrator

Told in the first person from Vega’s perspective, October is the Coldest Month cleverly shows how the world of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood opens up when she discovers that good people can do bad things — and vice versa.

It’s written in cool, detached prose but with an eye to evocative description. Here, for example, is how the place in which Vega lives is described:

If you look at a map of Varvet, the area where I live, you can see there are several hundred metres or even a kilometre between people’s homes — at least the ones that are marked on the map. As if God took a handful of houses, garages, barns, stables, and sheds in his giant hand and let them float down to earth, cold and lonely as snowflakes spread out in a funny pattern. The landscape and the forest are the old kind that make you want to keep to the roads and paths even during the day. The summers always pulsate with heat, and in the autumn and winter the air is damp and raw.

Tough lives

The working-class background, depicting tough lives hardened by tough attitudes and violent tendencies, is reminiscent of the deeply reflective work of Per Petterson, one of my favourite realist writers, while the social context of the crime brings to mind Karin Fossum’s wonderful crime novels.

Admittedly, I did not know this was a young adult novel when I bought it (from a local second-hand book shop), but it deals with very adult themes — Vega, for instance, is sexually active — and demonstrates the complexities of life, the moral codes by which we live and the ways women are often abused by men in domestic settings. What’s more, there’s no redemptive ending, but there’s enough here to make the reader think about the far-reaching consequences of our actions.

October is the Coldest Month is a short, sharp, powerful novel with edgy characters and an edgy setting, a compelling tale if you’re looking for an “easy” read with darker undertones. In 2016 it won the Swedish Crime Writers Academy award for Best Crime Novel of the Year for Young Readers.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Cambodia, Fiction, Peter Fröberg Idling, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting, TBR40

‘Song for an Approaching Storm’ by Peter Fröberg Idling

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 336 pages; 2015. Translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves.

Peter Fröberg Idling’s Song for an Approaching Storm is set in Cambodia in the summer of 1955. It tells the story of a complicated love triangle between two political rivals and a beauty queen, but it’s also a powerful evocation of a country at a pivotal point in its history: its first ever democratic elections following independence.

First, some (brief) history to put the story in context. The Kingdom of Cambodia was granted independence (from France) in 1954 following the Geneva Conference, which was designed to settle issues resulting from the Korean War and the First Indochina War. The following year, in early 1955, King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated, in favour of his father, so that he could found the Popular Socialist Community Party (commonly known as the Sangkum). This would ensure Cambodia remained a constitutional monarchy (modelled on the UK system) and would rival the left-leaning Democratic Party, which was pro-independence and sought to abolish the monarchy and set up a republic.

The election campaign, which preceded the country’s first democratic election after independence in September 1955, was marred by violence and bloodshed as rival parties fought to be elected to a 91-member National Assembly. The prince’s party won all 91 seats.

Three characters, three narratives

When Song for an Approaching Storm opens there’s just one month remaining in the election campaign. The novel, which spans the 30 or so days leading up to the actual poll, is divided into three parts and each part is told from the point-of-view of a different character.

In part one, Sar is leading a double life as a well-respected school teacher who is officially campaigning for the opposition, but behind the scenes he’s helping an armed Communist network that seeks to take over the Government. He’s engaged to Somaly, a striking young woman who won the Miss Cambodia beauty contest, but their relationship is unravelling and he’s not sure what to do about it. Some 20 years later he will reinvent himself as Pol Pot, the leader of the deadly Khmer Rouge.

In part two, we meet Sary, the ruthless deputy prime minister who is a close ally of the prince and is hell-bent on ensuring that his party stays in power at whatever cost necessary. He’s married with children, but that doesn’t stop him pursuing Somaly who becomes his lover.

And in the final part, we hear from Somaly herself and discover her affection for both men and her deep desire to be independent in a restrictive society that imposes strict rules on a woman’s behaviour and lifestyle.

Love story wrapped up in a riveting political thriller 

As a love story, Song for an Approaching Storm is a fascinating read, but as a political thriller — complete with betrayals, bitter rivalries, house arrests and murder — it is absolutely gripping. Told in rich, languid language, albeit in short, fragmentary sentences (all beautifully translated by Peter Graves), it almost reads like poetry.

Admittedly the first part, told entirely in the second person, is a challenging read and there were a couple of times that I considered abandoning the book because I couldn’t get a handle on it. But by part two, which is told in the more comprehensible third person, the story really came alive for me and I ate up the remainder  in two (longish) sittings because I was anxious to discover what would happen next.

It’s perfectly paced and totally assured. Fröberg Idling is fully in charge of his subject matter. By contrasting the lavish cocktail parties of the elite with the poverty-stricken lives of the peasant underclass, he’s able to paint a richly atmospheric tale based on real people and real events. As a compelling fictionalised account of Pol Pot’s lives and loves, it’s a story I won’t forget in a hurry…

This is my 4th book for #TBR40. I purchased it late last year in preparation for a week-long trip to Cambodia (I visited Phnom Penh and Siem Reap between 20-27 January 2019) because I always love to read books set in the places I’m about to visit / have visited. It certainly helped my comprehension of this story by knowing a brief history of Cambodia, which I learned during my travels, and of seeing some of the places mentioned in this book.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Five fast reviews, Heather O'Neill, Heinrich Böll, Patrick deWitt, Patrick Gale, Sven Lindqvist

Five Fast Reviews: Heinrich Böll, Patrick DeWitt, Patrick Gale, Sven Lindqvist and Heather O’Neill

Five-fast-reviews-300pix


‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or How violence develops and where it can lead’ by Heinrich Böll

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 140 pages; 2000. Translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz.

Lost-honourFirst published in Germany in 1974, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is widely regarded as a German classic — indeed it’s listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a dark morality tale about the “unscrupulous sensationalism of the mass media”. I think it could also be described as an examination of a misogynistic society hellbent on keeping women in their place and denying them the right to lead independent lives.

This short but powerful novella charts the downfall of Katharina Blum, a strong, independent woman, who meets a man at a party and takes him home, not realising he’s a wanted criminal. When he goes on the run, she is interrogated by the police who insist she’s an accomplice to his crimes even though she had never met him before. The city newspaper drags her name through the mud, portraying her as a whore and a communist. Her reputation in ruins, Katharina is forced to take drastic action, shooting the reporter who has distorted her story out of all proportion.

Written in a dry, somewhat detached style employing an omnipresent narrator, I can’t say that I was immediately grabbed by the story. But the message is a powerful one — and still rather relevant in today’s climate of social media shaming and bullying.

 

‘Undermajordomo Minor’ by Patrick DeWitt

Fiction – Kindle edition; Granta; 304 pages; 2015. 

Under-major-minor-domoLonglisted for this year’s Giller Prize, I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor for my Shadow Giller Jury obligations and found it an enjoyable, if somewhat surreal, romp hugely reminiscent of the kind of kooky fables that British writer Magnus Mills pens. The sinister elements of the story reminded me a little of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it’s not a horror story per se, more a dark, often very funny, Gothic fairy tale set in an unnamed country in an unspecified era.

The tale begins when one young man, Lucien (or “Lucy”), moves out of the family home to begin a new job — and life — working as a helper for the old “majordomo” of a creepy castle in a distant village. Lots of strange and unexplained things happen to Lucy, who befriends some local thieves and falls in love with a pretty girl, whom he woos using every trick in the book.

There’s no real plot line — the story works on character and a series of kooky set pieces — but it’s a fun, if somewhat unsettling (and occasionally violent) read from the author of The Sisters Brothers.

 

‘A Place Called Winter’ by Patrick Gale

Fiction – paperback; Tinder Press; 368 pages; 2015.

A-place-called-winterPatrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter is epic storytelling at its best. Written with warmth and great sensitivity, it charts the formative years of Harry Crane, a shy, stuttering gentleman of independent means, in Edwardian London, before a sex scandal forces him to abandon his wife and young daughter for a new life on the Canadian prairies.

The book opens with a middle-aged Harry undergoing treatment in an experimental sanatorium, but we do not know how he got there or what condition he is being treated for. The story then flashes back to his earlier life, and these two narrative threads — a current story framed by flashbacks — alternate to provide a rich tapestry of Harry’s life and search for self discovery.

Admittedly, this kind of story isn’t normally my cup of tea, but I enjoyed the change of pace and found the writing style reminiscent of Anita Shreve, who is one of my go-to authors. The book has been shortlisted for this year’s Green Carnation Prize and the 2015 Costa Novel Award.

 

‘Terra Nullis: A Journey Through No One’s Land’ by Sven Lindqvist

Non-fiction – paperback; Granta; 248 pages; 2012. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.

Terra-nulliusProving that my reading tastes are wide-ranging, this non-fiction book explores my interest in the issue of racism against Aboriginal Australians. First published in Sweden in 2005, it charts the history of black and white relations in Australia from the first point of contact in the 18th century to the current day.

The author Sven Lindqvist, an accomplished essayist and journalist, seems to have made a name for himself writing about cultural genocide (he has written similar books about black and white relations in Africa), and much of what he covers here makes for uncomfortable reading. Yet sometimes his passion (and fury) gets a little overwrought, and detracts from the important message at the book’s heart.

But on the whole, I found this an eye-opening read. Part entertaining travelogue, part searing polemic, it’s certainly one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read all year.

‘Daydreams of Angels’ by Heather O’Neill

Fiction – Kindle edition; Quercus; 369 pages; 2015.

Daydreams-of-angelsI’m familiar with Canadian writer Heather O’Neill having read and reviewed two of her previous novels, Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, but Daydreams of Angels is a slight departure for her, because it’s a short story collection. I read it because it was shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

The book is subtitled “Tall tales and twisted fairy stories” and that’s a pretty good description for the contents:  there are 21 stories about cherubs, talking bears, cats that dye their own fur and children who fend off marriage proposals, amongst others. Most are set in Montreal, others on the battlefields of World War Two. Some are surreal, others more grounded in reality.

The writing is sharp and witty, filled with wonderful descriptions of places and atmospheres, and the author has a particular “thing” for a clever simile — for instance:

“When a car of boys slowed down next to her on the sidewalk, she leaned in the window and wiggled her butt back and forth as she talked to them, like a bumblebee getting nectar out of a flower”

But on the whole I found the voice too similar throughout so that there was nothing to separate one story from another, and now, almost two months on, I find that nothing really stands out in my mind. I rated it pretty low against the other books on the Giller Prize shortlist, though my fellow jurors begged to differ

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Carl-Johan Vallgren, Fiction, Hesperus Press, literary fiction, Setting, Sweden

‘The Merman’ by Carl-Johan Vallgren

The-merman

Fiction – paperback; Hesperus Press; 288 pages; 2013. Translated from the Swedish by Ellen Flynn. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Carl-Johan Vallgren’s The Merman wins the award for the most unusual book I’ve read all year. It’s a mesmerising and slightly surreal tale involving two misfit children and, as the title might suggest, a creature known as a “merman”.

A tough life

The story, which spans October 1983 to May 1984,  is set in a small town on the west coast of Sweden. Here, 14-year-old Petronella (known as Nella) and her 12-year-old brother, Robert, live a fairly difficult life. Their mother spends her days in an alcoholic stupor and their father, who has been in jail for the past year, is too caught up in his criminal life to do much to help his children. Often there is not enough money for food, so Nella and Robert must fend for themselves. Often Nella resorts to shoplifting to get by.

To make matters worse, Robert has learning difficulties and is bullied at school. Nella does her best to protect him, but finds herself caught up in a vicious cycle in which she must pay off his tormentors or be bullied herself.

But there are two good things in Nella’s life: her friendship with the Professor, a local man “who hobbled his way through life on crutches paid for by the health service and read everything he could read and collected everything he could collect” and with Tommy, a boy her own age whom she has known her whole life.

When she asks Tommy for help, she can’t help but notice strange events going on in his family’s dilapidated boat house and this leads to a startling discovery.

Keeping secrets

The blurb on the back of my uncorrected proof goes to great lengths to avoid mentioning what lies hidden in the boat house, but when you call a book The Merman I don’t think there’s much point trying to be coy. There’s a strange creature chained to the floor — half fish, half mammal — which Nella describes as a “sea ape”. It’s only later, with the help of the Professor’s research, that she believes it to be a merman.

It turns out that the merman is being subjected to terrible abuse, mirroring in some way Nella and Robert’s experiences in the hands of the school bullies and their own parents, and his existence is being kept secret from the authorities. Much of the story is about Nella’s endeavours to save the merman from further mistreatment — something she, too, must do in secret — while seemingly ignoring her own personal problems, which are worsening.

As well as being an excellent portrayal of what it is to be an outsider, the book is very good at describing life in a small town and the oppressive nature of life at secondary school.

It’s quite a lovely story, if violent and distressing in places, and has a strong moral message at its core about cruelty and compassion. But it’s a little clunky in places, with a little too much emphasis on explaining things and spelling them out, rather than letting the reader figure things out for themselves. And while the characters of Robert and Nella are richly drawn, many of the other characters, especially the school bully Gerard, are little more than caricatures.

The story, however, flows well and is easy to read — indeed, it slipped down a treat on Boxing Day when I was feeling poorly with a chest cold and was tucked up on the sofa — and it’s sufficiently poignant to provide a feel-good factor when you reach the final pages. In many ways it’s like reading a fairy story, but one that’s designed for adults — perfect, if you like that sort of thing.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Faber and Faber, Fiction, holocaust, literary fiction, Poland, Publisher, Setting, Steve Sem-Sandberg

‘The Emperor of Lies’ by Steve Sem-Sandberg

Emperor-of-lies

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 664 pages; 2012. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.

Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Emperor of Lies won the August Prize — the Swedish equivalent of the Booker Prize — in 2009 and was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012.

It is a dense behemoth of a book, with nary a chink of light in its dark fictionalised account of the Holocaust, but I read it at a time when I was looking for something substantial to get my teeth into. At more than 650 tiny print-filled pages, it certainly fit the bill. It is by no means a light or easy read, but it is one that rewards the patient reader.

Based on a true story

The book is based on the factual story of Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski, a 63-year-old Jewish businessman, who was the leader of the Jewish ghetto in Łódź. The ghetto — the second largest in Poland — was established by the Nazis in February 1940. Its 200,000 inhabitants were forced to work gruelling hours  — and in impoverished conditions marked by constant hunger, cold and fear — to provide supplies for the German military.

Chaim, who was also known as “Eldest of the Jews” after the Nazis appointed him to the role, was a mysterious figure with murky morals: was he, as many believed, a Nazi pawn, content to do as the Germans wanted in order to save his own skin and fulfil his quest for power? Or was he acting in the misguided belief that if he turned the ghetto into a well-oiled machine for military production he would not only save the lives of those Jews who worked for him but convince the Third Reich that Jews were not the vermin they were thought to be. In other words, was he a sinner or a saint?

The book, which explores this question in exacting, sometimes overwhelming, always meticulous, detail, fictionalises Chaim’s life and the lives of those who lived among him, but it does not provide a definitive answer (although the title might hint at the author’s opinion). What it does is make the reader see the man in all his many facets — some of it good, much of it bad — and leaves you to come to your own conclusions.

Problematic but still powerful

The problem I have with a book of this nature is not knowing what is real and what is not. If it is based on fact and historical research — and the appendices suggest Sem-Sandberg has devoted considerable time in this pursuit — why not write a straight non-fiction book so it’s perfectly clear? Why fictionalise something and then write it in such a way — very dry, prosaic and “journalistic” — that it reads like authoritative non-fiction reportage?

The answer, I suspect, is that the author would find it difficult to bring in the view points of the vast array of characters at the heart of this novel, all of whom were based on real people. (The book is littered with eye witness accounts.) Indeed, there are so many characters that it’s hard to keep track of them (though the guide at the back is helpful), and because it is written from so many perspectives it’s difficult to identify with any one person. I often felt like I’d just got to “know” someone, and then the story switched to a different character and I would have to start afresh, as it were.

This might sound like I am being negative, but I have to admit that I found The Emperor of Lies a truly fascinating and absorbing read. It tends to plod along, but I appreciated the detail and the way in which Sem-Sandberg examines Chaim’s moral culpability. It’s crammed with information but is also very nuanced and moving, so that the weight of the emotion builds slowly and by the final page you feel absolutely shattered. When Chaim sacrifices the elderly and the children of the ghetto to save the working population, it comes as quite a shock. And when you know the fate of those that are disappearing — many were murdered in Auschwitz and Chelmo — when they do not, it is extremely distressing.

Although The Emperor of Lies is a problematic novel, it is also one of the most powerful I have ever read.

You can read more about the real life Chaim Rumkowski on wikipedia (though the articles seems almost as contentious as the person it’s about). And there’s a terrific review — or should I say hatchet job — on the Financial Times website. There’s a more positive take on it in The Independent.

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.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Kjell Eriksson, Publisher, Setting, Sweden, Thomas Dunne Books

‘The Princess of Burundi’ by Kjell Eriksson

Princess-of-Burundi

Fiction – paperback; Thomas Dunne Books; 300 pages; 2006. Translated from the Swedish by Ebba Segerberg.

Kjell Eriksson’s The Princess of Burundi won the Swedish Academy Award for Best Crime Novel in 2002 — long before Stieg Larsson hit the scene.

It’s not your typical Scandinavian crime novel in which a single police detective takes centre stage; this one tends to focus on a whole police department and follows the steps they take, working together, to solve a brutal crime.

A man goes missing

The crime in question is the disappearance of John Jonsson, a dedicated father and collector of tropical fish (the title of the book is the name of a fish), who fails to return home after work one evening shortly before Christmas. His body is found the next day. There are stab wounds to his chest and arms, his fingers have been severed and there are cigarette burns on his body which indicate he may have been tortured.

But in quiet Uppsala, a university town north of Stockholm, who would want “Little John”, as he is known, dead? Had he got caught up in something illegal with his brother, a known criminal? Or had he wracked up gambling debts?

When a local woman is killed in her home a few days later, police wonder if the murders are linked. Is there a serial killer on the loose?

Exceptionally nuanced novel

While the blurb on the American edition of this book is slightly misleading — it claims a “killer terrorizes an entire frightened town” — the focus of this exceptionally nuanced novel is more on the outfall of the murder on the victims and family members left behind. John was married with a teenage son, both of whom are wracked by grief and unable to comprehend why anyone would want him murdered. And then there is his brother Lennart, who is filled with so much venom and rage he will do almost anything to avenge John’s death.

Coupled with this exploration of a family’s sudden bereavement, is a detailed police procedural in which we are introduced to a vast cast of law-enforcers — a dramatis personæ would have been helpful — all of whom are dealing with their own problems and insecurities but are wedded together like a tightly knit family.

Chief among these is Anne Lindell, a police inspector currently on maternity leave, who can’t keep her nose out of the case. (I note that the British editions of this novel bill it as the first in the “Inspector Anne Lindell series”.)

World weary chief

But my personal favourite was the world weary chief Ottosson, a man who has been in the job so long “evil was exhausting him”. During meetings and briefings, in which he holds sway, a philosophical tone sneaks into his arguments — he’s less focused on the crime in question and more interested in the underlying social reasons behind it. Not all of his colleagues agree, but there are some interesting debates about social welfare, immigration and the decline in educational standards that make The Princess of Burundi an intelligent read.

It is a dark, brooding, atmospheric story, one that is deeply insightful and perceptive. And while the solution to the crime isn’t particularly satisfying, as a study of the effects of that crime and the ways in which the police go about their business it is a very fine book indeed.

More in the series

There are several more in the series which have been translated into English, including The Cruel Stars of the Night, The Demon of Dakar and The Hand that Trembles. I liked the first one enough to want to read the rest…at some point.

Author, Åsa Larsson, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Maclehose Press, Publisher, Setting, Sweden

‘Until Thy Wrath Be Past’ by Åsa Larsson

Until-thy-wrath-be-passed

Fiction – hardcover; MacLehose Press; 317 pages; 2011. Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I remember how we died.

So begins Åsa Larsson’s haunting Scandinavian crime thriller Until Thy Wrath Be Past (the title refers to a passage from the Book of Job).

Set in rural Sweden, it tells the story of two teenage lovers who disappear while diving in a secluded —and frozen — lake one winter’s day. Their bodies are never found, but the beyond-the-grave narrator, who begins the book, reveals that they met with foul play.

When Wilma Persson’s body surfaces in the River Thorne, far from the lake, during the spring-time thaw, the authorities assume she simply drowned. But why are her lungs filled with water from a different source? And why is there green paint underneath her fingernails?

Enter prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson and police inspector Anna-Maria Mella, two “alpha females”, who launch an investigation into the girl’s death and a hunt for her boyfriend’s body.

This fast-paced narrative, which begins on April 16 and concludes on May 3 (the dates act as chapter headings), is largely told in the third person. But early on in the novel, the voice of Wilma, the dead girl, butts in:

I go to visit the prosecutor. She’s the first person to see me since I died. She’s wide awake. Sees me clearly when I sit down on her bed.

Admittedly this supernatural element* may not appeal to all readers, but it gives the story an added dimension: that of the victim, who can tell her version of what really happened. And it also gives us, the reader, a vital piece of information that the police know nothing about: the pair had discovered a plane at the bottom of the lake, a plane that had been carrying supplies for the Wehrmacht in 1943.

As it turns out, the investigation’s success hinges on the discovery of the plane — and its reason for being there. Larsson uses this to devastating effect, by interleaving the narrative with flashbacks to the Second World War in which Sweden collaborated with the Germans. (This seems to be a recurrent theme in Swedish crime fiction.)

What particularly makes this novel work is not just the superb characterisation (both Martinsson and Mella feel like real flesh-and-blood women, one of whom juggles motherhood with her career, another who is trying to make a passionate but complicated long-distance relationship work), but the subsidiary plot lines — the police dog-handler has an unrequited “thing” for Martinsson, which is strangely moving — and the way in which Larsson keeps the momentum, and the suspense, on overdrive. She is excellent at what I call the foreshadowing effect, giving us little clues that bad things are going to happen up ahead. For example, after one character makes what seems like an innocent phonecall to a neighbour, she writes:

He cannot know what a terrible mistake that is. What consequences that telephone call will have.

And of course it wouldn’t be a proper Scandinavian crime novel without plenty of moody and atmospheric descriptions:

A week passes. Snow crashes down from the trees. Sighs deeply as it collapses into the sunny warmth. Bare patches appear. The southern sides of antills heat up in the sun. The snow buntings return. Martinsson’s neighbour Sivving Fjallborg finds bear tracks in the forest. The big sleep of winter is over.

Until Thy Wrath Be Past is a terrific thriller, and while it’s part of the “Rebecka Martinsson crime series” of which there are three previous novels, it can be safely read as a standalone. I found it to be a heart-hammering read — the first chapter is one of the most exciting first chapters I’ve read in a long while — with a multi-layered plot and a satisfying, if slightly Hollywoodish, ending.

* If that’s not your kind of thing, it might help to know the girl’s first-person account begins to wane the further you get into the book.

Author, Black Swan, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Johan Theorin, Publisher, Setting, Sweden

‘The Darkest Room’ by Johan Theorin

The-Darkest-Room

Fiction – paperback; Black Swan; 475 pages; 2009. Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy.

Earlier this year I read Johan Theorin‘s debut novel Echoes from the Dead and was immensely impressed with it. I was therefore keen to read the follow-up, The Darkest Room, which is the second book in Theorin’s planned quartet set on the Swedish island of Öland.

The novel is not so much about a crime, but what it is like to live in a haunted house where mysterious things happen for which there is no logical explanation. Or at least, that’s how the book feels when you begin reading it.

This is largely because the story revolves around a young family — Joakim, his wife Katrine and their two small children, Livia and Gabriel — who move from the Stockholm suburbs to renovate an old dilapidated manor house on the coast of Öland. The house, which was designed for the family that looks after twin lighthouses on little islands out at sea, was originally built from timber salvaged from a German vessel that was shipwrecked in 1846. According to Swedish folklore, it is bad luck to build a house from the spoils of a shipwreck, and there are plenty of local ghost stories attached to the house. But is it really haunted?

He [Joakim] stopped in the grass by the shore and took a long look at the buildings behind them. Isolated and private location, as it had said in the ad. Joakim still found it difficult to get used to the size of the main house; with its white gables and red wooden walls, it rose up at the top of the sloping grassy plain. Two beautiful chimneys sat on top of the tiled roof like towers, black as soot. A warm yellow light glowed in the kitchen window and on the veranda; the rest of the house was pitch black.

Odd little things do start to occur, which makes Joakim think twice. But when one member of his family dies suddenly, and in mysterious circumstances, it’s easy to see how a sensible adult might begin to believe that there are supernatural forces at work.

But to dismiss The Darkest Room as a horror story is to miss the point. There’s a lot more going on here, helped by multiple story lines in which each character has a dark secret to keep.

The first involves Henrik Jansson, a local tradesman, who goes into partnership with two small-time criminals, Tommy and Freddy Serelius. Together the three of them embark on a series of burglaries in which they steal valuables from holiday homes along the coast.

Then there’s the story of Tilda Davidsson, a new police officer, who is conducting a sordid affair with a former colleague. Tilda is also embarking on a personal research project, in which she “interviews” her great uncle in order to find out about her late grandfather.

This is the glue that melds all the story lines together, because her great uncle is Gerloff, the retired sea captain now living in a residential home for the elderly, who made his first appearance in Theorin’s earlier novel Echoes from the Dead. Gerloff is essentially an amateur sleuth, and it is his wisdom and pet theories that drives the narrative forward and helps Tilda in her official investigations. But he has a secret to keep, too, as does Joakim, who’s drug-addicted sister still haunts his conscience.

Theorin interleaves a fourth and final thread throughout these other character-driven threads, and this is about the history of the manor house. The history comes in the form of book extracts written by Mirja Rambe, Katrine’s mother, covering the period 1846 to 1962. (The Darkest Room is set somewhere in the mid 1990s, going by the age of Gerloff and the lack of mobile phone technology.) These extracts help to shape the idea that the house is haunted, because it reveals a rather sordid succession of troubles and deaths associated with those that have previously lived in it.

And there’s constant reference to Öland’s infamous blizzards, which roll in almost unannounced and claim lives. (Interestingly, the original Swedish title of the book was Nattfåk [Night Blizzard] and Theorin includes a short essay he wrote about the blizzard at the rear of the book.)

Told over the space of three months (the book is divided into sections labelled “October”, “November” and “December”), it is filled with secrets, ghost stories and Swedish folklore. The darkest room of the title turns out to be a secret room in the barn attached to the manor house, but it could also be seen as a metaphor for the secrets we all hold dear to us.

While I preferred Theorin’s debut to this one, The Darkest Room is an effortless read with plenty of momentum, and the resolution is a believable — and surprising — one.

The Darkest Room was named the Best Swedish Crime Novel in 2008 and won the CWA International Dagger in 2010.