Book review: The Boy in the Suitcase,by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

31 12 2016

Lene Kaaberbøl is a Danish writer (and high school teacher, and translator) whose primary solo output is in the field of children’s fantasy fiction (although she has recently published Doctor Death, the first in a series of crime novels set in nineteenth-century France). Agnete Friis, also a Danish writer (and journalist), has also written children’s fiction and YA, as well as the psychological thriller What My Body Remembers. In collaboration, Kaaberbøl and Friis have produced four novels in the Nina Borg series, where the central character is a Red Cross nurse whose humanitarian instincts repeatedly prove problematic.

theboyinthesuitcase

The Boy in the Suitcase (Drengen i kufferten, 2008, translated by Lene Kaaberbøl), the first of the Nina Borg novels, won the Harald Mogensen award for best crime novel and was shortlisted for the Glass Key award.

The titular character in Boy is a three-year-old whom Borg encounters when a friend of hers asks her to retrieve an item from a locker at Copenhagen’s central railway station. That ‘item’ turns out to be a heavy suitcase containing, as it transpires, one heavily-sedated small child. Nina has no clue as to the child’s identity, but believes him to be in continuing physical danger: she witnesses an angry assault on the recently-emptied locker by a large man in a leather jacket. Across the continent in Lithuania, solo mother Sigita Ramoškienė awakens in a hospital bed with no recollection of the assault that accompanied the abduction of her young son Mikas …

Alternating chapters, short but vivid, show us the ensuing events, most often through the eyes of Nina or Sigita, though others’ viewpoints are occasionally adopted as needed. The characterisation is strong, with all of those involved having plausible (if not always admirable) motives for the actions they take: the crime that sees a young boy snatched from his mother and then transported halfway across Europe is deftly explained: it becomes comprehensible, even as it remains monstrously horrific. And Nina is an intriguing protagonist, idealistic, headstrong, compassionate, but prone to distraction, even, at times, to absent-mindedness. She is, in some ways, a less streetwise sister—or perhaps a precursor?—to Finnish crime novelist Kati Hiekkapelto’s Detective Inspector Anna Fekete, with whom she shares both a conviction that a society should care, not just for its citizens, but for all its residents, and a determination to take action pursuing this ideal. If Kaaberbøl & Friis place less emphasis, in this collaborative debut, on the victimisation of refugees than does Hiekkapelto’s work, there’s nonetheless a wealth of nuanced social criticism woven into their narrative.

If Nina (who is, obviously, the mainstay of the Nina Borg books, of which a further three currently exist) is a compelling lead character, Sigita is a superior foil: if at first her chapters appear to be mere backstory to the principal storyline involving Nina, her subsequent actions are sufficient to propel her to a central role in the unfolding events. (I won’t divulge details of the story’s climatic resolution, but it’s impressively handled and well-choreographed.) And the prose is a delight to read: it’s emphatic, and clear, and shot through with cogent observations that inform, but do not intrude upon, the book’s deepening mystery. It’s clearly inappropriate to treat this work as a debut—both Kaaberbøl and Friis were already experienced authors at the time they embarked upon Boy—and yet, in the sense that any writing partnership will never be exactly equal only to the sum of its parts, it’s perhaps not so inappropriate. I’m not sure what separate plans the authors have, going forward, but I do hope we get to see more of Nina.

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