Last year I enjoyed reading Johan Theorin’s book, The Quarry , the third book in a quartet of novels based on the island of Öland in the Baltic Sea. While possibly falling into the hugely popular “Scandi-crime” genre, The Quarry had elements which set it apart, not least by its interweaving of a thoroughly modern story of a family in crisis with a deeper story emerging from the island’s folk-lore traditions.
When in March of last year The Asylum appeared I marked it down as one to read but have only got round to it this month. Had I known how good it was I would have read it much earlier and it has made me want to go back to the first two of Theorin’s novels and download them to the Kindle for future consumption.
The Asylum could be categorised as a psychological thriller, but it is much more than that, with it’s exploration of a very troubled psyche indeed. The main character, Jan, a young man in his twenties, arrives in a Swedish town to work in The Dell, a nursery attached to a secure hospital, St Patricia’s, where the young children of inmates are cared for during the day, returning in the evening to their foster homes. Two or three of the children who are awaiting foster home placements spend their nights in the Dell, requiring the five staff to work night-shifts on a rota.
Occasionally the children are taken on supervised visits to their incarcerated parent. The Dells’s staff have to escort the children through an underground passage to a lift which takes them up to the hospital where a security guard takes over and the staff member returns to the nursery, going back to pick up the children up an hour later.
I am going to keep this review shorter than usual because I am working on a couple of larger projects at the moment and am not writing much this week – normal service will be resumed in a few days time.
I seem to be having a binge on Scandi-crime novels this month – The Quarry is my third this year and I think it’s something to do with living in the dark days of January and feeling a touch of sympathy with those poor Swedes and Norwegians who won’t be seeing warmer weather for some time yet.
I’ve tried at least to limit my crime-binge to writers I’ve not read before such as Jan Costin Wagner, Håkan Nesser and now Johan Theorin, three authors whose books try to push the boundaries further than the average crime novel, and who have all won prizes for their work (Theorin won the Crime Writer’s Association’s International Dagger Award in 2010 for his previous book, The Darkest Room).
Theorin’s books form a quartet of novels based on the island of Öland in the Baltic Sea. Theorin has had long familiarity with Öland having been a regular visitor there from childhood and coming from a family whose antecedents lived their for centuries as sailors, fishermen and farmers. The island is noted for it’s strange folklore involving trolls and ljusalfer (a sort of elf – see the excellent Wikipedia article on Scandinavian folklore).
In The Quarry, we read of Per Morner, a divorced father of two teenagers who has taken over an old wooden house on Öland and has decided to live there for the summer while he carries on his work as a telephone pollster. Morner has two difficult situations to cope with; his daughter Nilla is in hospital undergoing investigations into a potentially dangerous medical condition. In addition to this, his elderly father Jerry has had a stroke and is no longer coping on his own – to make things more complicated, his father is a renowned pornographer whose life has been dominated by dubious business transactions and affairs with porn-stars.
After two years and three months my Kindle finally gave up the ghost by presenting me with a screen consisting of a mess of horizontal lines and black and white blocks. It’s had some pretty rough treatment – being put in my trouser pocket while on long cycle rides, being rolled on when I fell asleep while reading it and being exposed to sand and salt on many days on the beach.
I decided it was still worth ringing Amazon to see if they could offer me anything and was surprised to find that after being passed around three different people I was offered a significant discount on a new Kindle (with the amount of money I spend on ebooks I could say that they should just have sent me a new one for free).
Without a lot of thought I opted for the Paperwhite version and didn’t realise it was a touch-screen model. When it arrived I turned it on and while I was looking for non-existent buttons I didn’t realise that the screen was asking me to choose a language and I inadvertently selected Chinese. The confirmation screen then gave me two choices – in Chinese (presumably accept or cancel) and I chose the wrong one – result: a fully Chinese Kindle.
It would of course be a simple job to change the language back again were the menus not now written in Chinese characters. I rang Amazon again and the agent was able to tell me which menu options to choose by counting down from the top and eventually I ended up with an English language Kindle but with some irritating Chinese pop-ups such as dictionary which I managed to get rid of over the next couple of days.
I have been a great fan of Kazuo Ishiguro’s books ever since The Remains of the Day right up to his latest book of four stories, Nocturnes. One of his more intriguing books was Never Let Me Go, about a boarding school in which cloned children were raised to become organ donors (turned into a rather good film by Director, Mark Romanek).
I was drawn to read The Unit because I was intrigued to see what Swedish writer Ninni Holmqvist would make of the organ donation theme. After all, Sweden has an unpleasant history of eugenics having sterilised more mentally ill and deviant people than even Nazi Germany, in a programme that was brought to an end in 1975.
I have to say, I thought The Unit was rather good. It is unlike Never Let Me Go in many ways, not least that in the Ishiguro book it is children who donate their organs while in The Unit it is the older generation who contribute their bits and pieces for the good of others.
The Unit takes place at an unspecified time in the future. The world looks similar to ours but society has moved on. The population is shrinking and priority is given to those who can bear children. Childless, single or gay people are classified as “dispensable” and at the age of 50 for women or 60 for men (men produce viable sperm for longer than women produce viable eggs) they give up their homes and every aspect of their lives and go to live in The Unit where they spend the rest of their days – a place which has all the features of a luxury spa hotel, while going through a series of medical experiments and organ donations which will eventually kill them (via their “final donation”).
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.
I enjoy reading the occasional thriller/crime novel and with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo being so highly reviewed I thought I would give it a try (especially having watched the BBC series “Wallander” based on novels by another Swedish writer, Henning Mankell).
Many readers will already know that the author, Stieg Larsoon, delivered the manuscripts for the three crime novels forming his Millennium Trilogy (this one is the first) to his publisher and then died suddenly and unexpectedly soon afterwards. This was a sad loss for despite their failings (at least in my opinion) this is a unique set of novels, the second. The Girl Who Played With Fire having now been published in the UK.
The book’s main theme is about the wealthy Vanger family, who over several generations have built up an industrial empire. However, despite their vast wealth, the family are dysfunctional to say the least, and have many skeletons in their cupboards. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist is recruited by the elderly Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance of Harriet Vanger who went missing thirty years ago.
In a parallel thread we read of Lisbeth Salander who is a troubled security specialist who spends her time free-lancing on special investigations using her skills in computer hacking and network-busting. Salander’s story runs parallel to Blomkvist for the first 250 pages or so, and it is not easy to see the connection between the two until they eventually meet up and work together on the Vanger case.