Book review: The White City, by Karolina Ramqvist

13 08 2017

Karolina Ramqvist is a Swedish journalist, magazine editor, and author who has won several literary awards for her fiction and essays. Only a small fraction of her work has yet appeared in English translation.

TheWhiteCity

At the start of The White City (Den vit staden, 2015, translated by Saskia Vogel), Karin and her infant daughter Dream are still living in the luxurious two-storey home she had, until recently, shared with the now-departed John. But the dwelling’s services have been cut, over the past few months of autumn and winter, for non-payment of arrears: there’s no phone, no heating, no food in the refrigerator. John, it seems, didn’t come by the house (or by anything much else of their possessions) entirely legally, and Karin has no independent means of supporting herself or her daughter. So when the functionaries of the Swedish Economic Crime Authority make it plain—one final time—to Karin that they’re about to seize all of those possessions, it forces her to break out of the torpor she’s been sheltering within over the preceding weeks.

The opening sections of The White City are uncomfortable reading, lacking in literal or metaphorical warmth, sharing the severe Scandinavian sensibility of an early Ingmar Bergman film, or of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Ranqvist’s writing is clinical, unflinching: Karin may well be spending her days in a miasma of depression, denial, and desperation, but we’re forced to watch and to empathise with her (and with Dream, utterly at the mercy of her mother’s lapses in attention). Karin is, however, a survivor, and she sets about seeking out John’s former colleagues, to establish whether there’s any compassion among thieves, any way to take control of her circumstances. The reception she gets isn’t what she hopes for.

The White City is a carefully-scripted piece of minimalist menace, akin in tone to Agnes Ravatn’s exquisite The Bird Tribunal—though among many points of divergence, Ravatn’s novel is deeply rural, almost pastoral, where Ramqvist’s is quintessentially suburban. Although both books can, in some measure, be viewed as crime novels, their strong understatement, painstaking attention to detail, emphasis on character and viewpoint, and carefully-implied near-constant tension (in The Bird Tribunal, via the nagging doubt of whether her housekeeper protagonist can truly trust her host and employer; in The White City, via the simple but knife-edged concern over whether Karin can keep her infant daughter from harm while her own world crumbles around her) imbues them with a definite literary feel.

This is a quiet book, subtle, compact, but quite mesmerising.

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