Monday, 11 September 2017

Shadow by Karin Alvtegen

Who doesn't love a Scandi crime novel? Dark, chilling, nail-biting Nordic Noir is a sub-genre with a great following. Earlier this year I bought a bunch of books by Karin Alvtegen, on The Book People (I think I need to avoid that site for a while, at least until I read more of the books I have already acquired there).
Shadow was shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger 2009, won The Danish Academy of Crime Writers Award for Best Crime Novel of the Year and was shortlisted for the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers Award for Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year.
Karin Alvtegen is considered to be the Queen of Crime.

The novel starts on a very disturbing note: a 4-year-old boy is abandoned in an amusement park.
The story quickly switches to a death of an elderly woman. Gerda Persson has lain dead in her flat for three days before she was found. While sorting through her belongings, the district commission's estate administrator makes a mysterious discovery - a whole lot of books, wrapped in clingfilm and kept in the freezer. They are all written and signed by the Nobel Prize winner Axel Ragnerfeldt.

The narrative moves from the present to the past and back, slowly uncovering the skeletons in the closets, one deadlier than the other.
The characters are not particularly likable. There is Jan-Erik, Axel's son, who would have been a nobody if not for his father's legacy and laurels. He travels around the country with lectures about his famous father and the origins of his inspiration, portraying his father as a deeply ethical man, a profound thinker and philosopher.
Jan-Erik cannot keep it in his pants. He is a womaniser who thrills in the quick seduction of women in his audience, while totally neglecting his long-suffering wife and young daughter.

Karin Alvtegen is a skilled story-teller, her psychological observations are spot on.
She describes Jan-Erik and Louise's co-existence in a few lines:
"The mood was like day-old ice; a brittle surface over deep water that had to be traversed, with each step tested cautiously. Two people, so intimate that they ate breakfast together in their bathrobes, yet the chasm between them so great it was perilous to try and bridge it. There was nothing to say, about anything".

There is another long-suffering wife, an elderly Alice, Alex's wife, who as a young woman showed a lot of promise as a writer herself. Then children happened, and she took to alcohol.
Even before the tragedy strikes, she seems to have given up on her writing talent.

And then there is a tragic unhinged Halina, a survivor of the Nazi camp. Having seeing the death of her mother and young sister, she is mentally disturbed. A woman scorned, she is set on revenge, with tragic consequences for everyone around.

Gerda is a silent witness to the Ragnerfeldts' family drama... As their housekeeper, she is also a keeper of many secrets. Only once she dares to stand up to Axel, accusing him of never being content: "I'm content, and you're not. You're always chasing after what you imagine you could become".
She is also a co-conspirator to the most repulsive crime, not because she took part in it directly, but because she did nothing to stop it.

It is difficult to find sympathy for most of the characters of the book. Both wives choose to drown their sorrows in alcohol, and they both fail as mothers. Their maternal love is rather tepid. They see their children as a threat to their destiny and a snare. Halina is not capable of loving her son.

The skeletons of the past tend to fall out of the closet, revealing the most repugnant abhorrent events.

This is a gripping psychological story. I felt that the final part was rather rushed and had some loose ends. We never find out why exactly Gerda kept the books in the freezer.

It is a chilling unsettling novel, which makes you think about the meaning of life.


  1. Sounds interesting - although it's always better when you can at least empathise a little with some of the characters.

    1. It is a well-written book, but the characters are all pretty unpleasant.

  2. Sounds like my sort of book but its better when you can relate to the characters. Now I am wondering why she kept books in the freezer, how odd.

    1. Yes, once I finished the book, I thought: what was all that about the books in the freezer, just why?