Karin Alvtegen, Shadow, translated from the Swedish by McKinley Burnett (London: Canongate 2009 ). A gripping psychological thriller, but one which tips over into melodrama at times 4 stars
Opening sentence: The key to the flat had arrived in a padded envelope from the police.
Karin Alvtegen’s Shadow immediately caught my eye with its rather intriguing opening. When 92-year-old Gerda Persson dies alone, estate administrator Marianne Folkesson visits her flat to glean the details of her life, and finds the freezer packed with signed copies of books by prize-winning author Axel Ragnerfeld. What on earth could have led Gerda to put them there? And what connection might they have to a young boy who was abandoned in an amusement park back in 1975?
So far so good: a literary puzzle that leads the reader into the dark heart of a family’s story – as well as that of a traumatised Holocaust survivor – and expertly keeps us wanting to know more. Well-written and gripping, and with a multi-layered, uncompromising ending, Shadow is in many respects a highly enjoyable read. In particular, I found many of the novel’s characters sensitively drawn, and their relationships described with a keen eye for psychological detail. Alvtegen is particularly good at exploring human weaknesses, and the kind of personal prisons individuals create for themselves without even realising what they are doing. Tracing the consequences of these weaknesses, and of the criminal decisions or actions they generate, are the novel’s great strength.
However … there was one element of Alvtegen’s story-telling that grated, namely a tendency to melodrama in the final third of the novel. There came a point where so many dramatic events were piled on top of one another that the narrative threatened to tip over into ridiculousness, and to undo the finely observed psychological detail of the rest of the novel. This tendency also weakened the depiction of a couple of characters, whose actions at certain moments just didn’t ring true.
In spite of these reservations, I did enjoy the novel, and found that the questions it raised about life choices, trauma and morality lingered on. In particular, the ‘one last question’ on the final page of the book stayed with me for a number of days after closing its covers.
Mrs. Peabody awards Shadow a thoughtful 4 stars.
Trivia special, courtesy of @Petrona: Karin Alvtegen is the great-niece of Pippi Long-stocking author Astrid Lindgren. Petrona’s own excellent review of Shadow can be read on the Euro Crime blog (and contains a more detailed description of some elements of the plot).
I’m glad you enjoyed this book, I think she is an under-rated author compared with some. I suppose it is a bit melodramatic come to think of it (I suppose you mean the WW2 theme?) but I suppose a lot of Victorian novels were melodramatic and I rather like those (or rather, the ones I’ve read, there are so many of them), so perhaps I am overly tolerant of it.
Her books are all very different, I would be interested to know what you make of Missing (thriller) or Betrayal (psychological dissection of a marriage, really creepy) for example – time permitting 😉
Yes, I did enjoy, melodrama and all. I think I was just a bit surprised as I don’t think of Swedish crime fiction as being melodramatic (but then again can already think of a couple of exceptions to that rule). It was less any one story-line and more the quick succession of melodramatic events at a certain point: too much for me to process in one go. But as I say, the questions it raised stayed with me, and I thought the depiction of the writer as egotist was beautifully done. Will definitely give the others a go at some point, but will mix them in further down the line. Just started Fossum’s Don’t Look Back and am enjoying its sober style!
I’ve only read Missing, and I didn’t care for it — too creepy. Also, I didn’t like the main character at all, which some readers may not mind, but I do. I have to like the protagonist.
Yes, I know what you mean. I found myself missing the police investigator as well – I associate the Swedish crime novel too strongly with the police procedural perhaps. Just started reading a Fossum ‘Sejer’ novel, so am back on safe ground! Will go back and read more of KA’s work, I’m sure – but with largish gaps between each one.
I can see that. I do not like books where the main character is a horrible person or a psychopath.
I either prefer a police inspector or a private detective or just a really good story that has some humanity and kindness in it, some thoughtfulness. I am on safe ground now reading about Guido Brunetti’s thoughts, words and actions in Donna Leon’s latest, which are always safe for me.
Just read Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, a U.S. professor, a good, sold book with plenty of human understanding and kindness — and a solid mystery.
Thanks, Kathy. Think I probably have similar tastes to you. For me, what I choose to read also depends on my general state of mind: my threshold for more ‘disturbing’ novels goes up and down a bit, depending on what else is going on in the real world! Not heard of Tom Franklin before – will take a peek.
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