Book review: Shadow, by Karin Alvtegen

22 12 2016

Karin Alvtegen is a Swedish crime fiction author whose works generally eschew plot pyrotechnics in favour of ever-more-sinister undertones, gradually teased out from a disturbing but plausibly-realised setting. I’ve previously reviewed her Glass-Key-award-winning second novel, Missing, here.

shadow

Shadow (Skugga, 2007, translated by Steven T Murray) opens with the abandonment of a small boy in Stockholm’s open-air museum, Skansen, and then proceeds to explore the sequence of events set in train by the death of Gerda Persson, the reclusive former housekeeper for the tragedy-marked family of celebrated author (and Nobel laureate) Axel Ragnerfeldt, whose daughter Annika was killed many years ago in a hit-and-run accident at the age of fifteen. As the bedridden Axel’s philandering son Jan-Erik seeks to provide a social worker with some form of biographical background for the barely-remembered Gerda, he uncovers a dark secret which has long lain dormant within his family.

The story underpinning Shadow is slow to emerge, as the several characters are introduced. Chapters are presented from the various perspectives of Jan-Erik, his bitter alcoholic mother Alice, his unhappy wife Louise, and his stroke-incapacitated father Axel, as well as from Kristoffer, the man whose earliest memory is of having been abandoned at Skansen, and Marianne Folkesson, the social worker tasked with bringing some sense of closure to the death of Gerda. This multiplicity of viewpoints, each of which is presented with a dispassionate immediacy and intimacy that at first seems sympathetic, ensures that the reader is repeatedly conflicted as to the precise heading of the story’s overarching moral compass. (In this regard, the puzzle which is presented to Axel at around the book’s midpoint—where he is asked to assess the relative culpabilities of five protagonists within a short narrative—is instructive; the puzzle can be seen as a minimalistic distillation of the tensions exposed within the wider story. Though the puzzle is presented as parable or, perhaps, symbol, with no complete alignment between its characters’ straightforward choices and the far more knotty dilemmas faced by Shadow‘s players, it nonethless becomes clear, at least, which of the puzzle’s characters most closely maps out the role played by Gerda as the story moves to its ominous conclusion.)

One of the themes within Shadow is the darker side of literary ambition, with several characters—Jan-Erik, Alice, Kristoffer, even Axel himself—struggling with the ongoing weight of Axel Ragnerfeldt’s status as the author of several well-received books and one acknowledged classic. While I don’t doubt that the particularities of the Ragnerfeldt family’s circumstances are the product of Alvtegen’s writerly imagination, the specifics of Alvtegen’s heritage (she is the grandniece of Pippi Longstocking creator Astrid Lindgren) lend this side of Shadow a powerful sense of authenticity and credible detail.

This is, as noted above, a decidedly slow burn of a book, as Alvtegen pares back each civilising layer to present a progressively more grim and disturbing image of the depths to which people can sink. It is remarkably well done, but I don’t know that I’ll be trying anything more by Alvtegen for the next little while; I think I need to rebuild some trust in human nature before then.

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