Discovering Scandinavian crime novels can be quite an eye-opener, once you get past Girl With a Dragon Tattoo. There are just so many fine writers out there whose complex plotting and characterisation is the equal of any of more well-known English-speaking authors.
Shadow, by Karin Alvtegen is an example of a book that only a few years ago would have been lost to English speakers, but one good thing about the “Dragon Tattoo” thing is that publishers seem to be queuing up to support translations of other Scandinavians and put them on our shelves and e-readers.
It is very difficult to classify this book. It is not really a “crime novel”, although a serious crime is disclosed (but not until towards the end of the book). Its not a family saga either, although the story spans four generations of a family. Neither is it a thriller, for its story is low-key and almost rambling at times. The plotting is complex and draws the reader through many layers of unravelling until it all comes together in the last chapters. From the reviewers point of view its almost impossible to describe without spoiling it (but read on, I won’t do that).
There is a strong literary theme to this book. It centres around the life and work of fictional Nobel Prize winner Axel Ragnerfelt, not in his old age and paralysed after a serious stroke, so that he can only communicate by moving the little finger of one hand. The Nobel prize has been given because of Ragnerfelt’s message of eternal human values which pervades his work, and this is so unique that his son Jan Erik has made a career out of developing a charitable foundation in his father’s name and travelling around the globe delivering inspirational talks which spread a message of tolerance and hope.
But slowly we find that all is not quite as it seems. The Rangernfelt’s long-serving house-keeper dies without relatives or friends and a representative of the public trustee is sent to tidy up her affairs. A will is found bequeathing her estate to Kristoffer Sandeblom a man nobody has heard of, a struggling play-wright, who life has run in parallel to Jan Eriks, but without the success.
Karin Alvtegen draws her readers into the connections between all these people, her story moving back and forth from Axel’s life and Jan Erik’s as we learn that all is not quite as it seems. Drama increases throughout until at the end of the book we are confronted with a page-turning denouement which made this reader at least want to applaud the author for her skill in starting with so many disparate themes and ending up with a startling resolution to all of them, much like the climax to an orchestral symphony.
Maxine Clarke wrote on her Amazon review of this book
It has strong parallels with Wuthering Heights, in which two “normal” people (Gerda as Nelly Dean and Marianne as Lockwood) are the filter through which the reader experiences elemental, horrifically tragic and passionate events that are beyond the witness-narrators’ comprehension.
I see what she means and in particular the “elemental” nature of the experiences. I could use “Shakespearean” as an adjective too, for we read of the rise and fall of generations and reputations, the destruction of lineages.
I don’t often enjoy a book quite as much as this one. Its pretty damned good as they say. Its a literate read and the characters are wholly believable and very complex. I kept feeling that the book must have been written by a man for Karin Alvtegen seems to have burrowed deep into the male psyche and understood some typically male aspects of the motivations of ambition, sex, family and wealth. Not to say that men and women can’t write about the opposite sex, its just that in Shadow, the male characterisation is totally convincing.
2011 has seen me reading five Scandinavian novels so far and I am yet to be disappointed. Karin Alvtegen is a name I will add Sofi Oksanen, Jo Nesbo, Arnaldur Indridason as writers to watch out for when I want a book to devour in a few sittings.