W., by Steve Sem-Sandberg

Trigger warnings for disturbing acts of violence against humans and animals.

I’ve always been bothered by the term “crime of passion.” It always struck me as an excuse for a criminal act of violence, as if someone is somehow less guilty because they weren’t able to control their emotions. But then, when you start to think about things in terms of crime and punishment, how are we, a jury of readers or an actual jury, supposed to interpret the series of actions that lead to and follow a murder? How can we put ourselves in the mind of a perpetrator to decide if they acted with premeditation or malice aforethought or any of a number of legal distinctions for someone’s state of mind? And how much does that state of mind matter when someone is dead? I thought about these questions and the idea of a crime of passion a lot as I read Steve Sem-Sandberg’s W. (translated expertly by Saskia Vogel).

The story of Johann Christian Woyzeck has been told in fiction more than. The first version of the story was an 1836 play by Georg Büchner. Judging by the number of adaptations of that play and other versions of Woyzeck that have appeared in the 200 years since the soldier Woyzeck fatally stabbed his lover, I’m not the only one who is curious about crimes of passion or who wants to understand the thoughts that could lead someone to a sudden act of violence.

Sem-Sandberg’s W. gives Woyzeck a chance to tell his confusing story, in between sections that read like court transcripts or reports from legal and medical experts involved in the Woyzeck case. The legal documents keep us grounded in the facts of the case. Sometime before the night of June 2/3, 1821, Johann Christian Woyzeck procured a dagger made from a broken saber or bayonet blade. He used the blade on that June night to murder Johanna Woost. Woost had been Woyzeck’s lover. Beyond these facts, even in W., there is a lot of uncertainty about why the murder happened. There’s also a lot of uncertainty about Woyzeck’s life. He held a number of different positions: wigmaker’s apprentice, woodworker, soldier, barber, and general man-at-work. It seems like no one, not even Woyzeck himself, knew what to do with the man. I can only describe his life as a dark or anti-picaresque, in which Woyzeck is constantly caught up in bad situations with violent and/or manipulative people.

In Sem-Sandberg’s account, there are a number of factors that might influence a jury’s verdict about Woyzeck’s guilt. Woyzeck suffered a number of head injuries over the course of his life, starting in childhood. We now know that serious head injuries can change someone’s personality or alter their ability to tell right from wrong or affect their ability to regulate their emotions. Woyzeck may have also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He served with a regiment of troops from Mecklenburg during Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia in 1812, during which he would’ve seen terrible things. And yet, court records show that Woyzeck was—as far as the medical science of 1821 and 1824 could tell—of sound mind when his crime occurred.

W. is a challenging read. The multiple timelines, the senseless violence, and the ethical questions about mitigating factors mean that this book is difficult to read in several senses of the word. But I don’t think that readers who are curious about historical true crime, justice, or mental health should be put off. This book is packed with food for thought. I also very much appreciated Sem-Sandberg’s handling of the historical material. W. is a skillful blend of fact and fiction that brings to life a story that, apart from fans of Büchner’s play, is almost entirely forgotten.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Folklorn, by Angela Mi Young Hur

Elsa’s family is full of broken people. And, even though she managed to get away, she’s somewhat broken, too. Folklorn, by Angela Mi Young Hur, is a story of damaged people trying to endure…and of Elsa’s efforts to do more than endure. All of this is seasoned with Korean folklore in the form of stories that Elsa’s mother warned would eventually come for her. Throughout the book, I wondered what was real, what was mental illness, and what just might be supernatural.

Elsa Park is one of the prickliest characters I’ve ever read. I can’t blame her, considering what she grew up with. Between her father’s anger, her mother’s possible madness, her brother’s scheming, and a lot of anti-Asian racism, she’s never really known peace or comfort. She’s always being pushed to be an obedient daughter or a “model immigrant.” The prickliness is Elsa’s armor. She uses it to fend off catcallers as well as potential friends. I’ll admit it took me some time to really understand what was underneath Elsa’s behavior.

We meet Elsa in Antarctica. She studied physics in high school. Her intelligence and drive have brought her to one of the most elite scientific stations in the world—and as far as possible from her family without actually leaving the planet. Her troubles have followed her, of course, in the form of a ghostly Korean woman only Elsa can see. Within a few pages, Elsa seems to be breaking down mentally. After a technological and then social disaster, she runs to Sweden to resume post-doctoral work. It’s there that she learns of a third disaster: her mother has died after years in a coma.

The plot of Folklorn spools out as Elsa finally returns to the United States and her remaining family. In flashbacks, we learn just how broken the Park family is. There are also interstitial chapters that consist of Korean folktales. All of these tales center on girls who are betrayed by their parents (usually their fathers) and sacrificed for the greater good. Sometimes the girls are rescued or rescue themselves. More often, they die. Before Elsa’s mother fell into her coma, she tried to convince Elsa that all the women in her family were cursed to become one of those folktale girls. After her mother’s death, Elsa throws aside her studies on neutrinos to puzzle out her mother’s stories.

This was a difficult book to read. Folklorn is the kind of book that always keeps readers guessing. We have to read very carefully between the lines to decide what’s real and what isn’t. Even once I decided what I thought was real, I still had big questions about the likelihood of Elsa being able to recover as she flits from place to place and project to project. What will it take to heal Elsa? What will it take for her to find a real home? It’s only at the very end that I got answers, although I can’t quite say that I’m satisfied by Folklorn. The ending is lovely but the preceding chapters kicked up so much psychological baggage that I’m still processing what I learned about Elsa and the Parks. This book absolutely needs a light-hearted chaser to wash everything away.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag

Trigger warning for extreme violence and sexual sadism.

About two years ago, I heard someone say that they didn’t like a book because it put thoughts in her head that she didn’t want polluting hear brain. After reading The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag, I now know exactly what she felt like. This novel is almost relentlessly vile, as character after character is shown to be violent, duplicitous, or sadistic. There are almost no good people in this book and lots of very bad things happen to just about everyone. It is as if someone took the author aside and said, look, people like dark books, so go and write the darkest, grimmest, nastiest things your brain can come up with. That’s what reading The Wolf and the Watchman is like.

The novel begins with two children hauling Stockholm watchman, Mikel Cardell (violent), out of his drunk and take him to a body found in an open sewer. Cardell retrieves the body, only to find that it is entirely limbless, with its eyes, tongue, and teeth removed. When dying former lawyer-turned-detective Cecil Winge (manipulative) finds out about the case, he wants to solve it and asks Cardell to be his partner. Once Cardell is beaten up in a sure sign that the pair are on to something and they both discover the incredibly awful fate of their murder victim, we are taking on a long side trip to learn about the last months of Kristopher Blix (a naive coward who really will do anything to save his skin) and learn how Anna Stina Knapp became a woman willing to do shockingly awful things to stay out of the workhouse.

The side trips are relevant, but it takes a while to understand how they’re related to the overall plot—especially Anna Stina’s story. It’s only in the last quarter of the book that we rejoin Cardell and Winge for a series of hairpin plot twists and even more appalling revelations as they finally discover who their victim was and how he came to be floating in sewage.

I was drawn to The Wolf and the Watchman because of its setting. I clearly am a sucker for places and times I haven’t yet visited in fiction. This book was also described as The Alienist in Sweden and I just couldn’t resist. I wish I had. This book is not among the best of the Scandinoir tradition; it’s not even among the second best. The characters give unnatural speeches. The motive behind the main crime is implausible and convoluted. And all of this is on top of almost 400 pages of relentless inhumanity. I don’t recommend it at all.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Mothers, by Chris Power

The short stories in Chris Power’s collection, Mothers, range across the world, from Sweden to Mexico. Though the settings are varied, many of the stories revolve around two themes: betrayal and unacknowledged traumas from the past. None of them are comfortable to read; some are even a bit frustrating. That said, all of them are interesting portraits of characters who don’t know what they want, who can’t have what they want, or who have to deal with characters like the other two types. 

Two of the standouts from this collection, for me, are:

“The Colossus of Rhodes” – This story has more than one trick up its sleeve. At first, it seems as though the narrator is comparing his present vacation to Greece with his wife and child with a trip that he took when he was a child. But then things take a sinister turn when a stranger assaults the narrator-as-a-child. More disturbing incidents follow, only for the narrator to turn the whole tale on its head. He says he has evidence that these things did happen, even if nothing happened quite like he says it did. In the end, we have to wonder what really happened and why the narrator wrestles so much with that long ago trip.

“The Haväng Dolmen” – Readers won’t have much sympathy for the pretentious academic at the beginning of this story, set in the Swedish countryside near a Neolithic dolmen. He is only there because his archaeologist colleagues said the site was worth seeing, even if it’s not the narrator’s period of interest. Once the narrator sets out to see the dolmen, he starts to feel as though someone is following. There’s no one there whenever he turns around. It’s only near the end of the story that we finally learn what’s haunting this brusque, solitary man. 

Mothers also features three connected stories about a Swedish woman named Eva. We meet her as a child, as a young woman, and as a mother (the last through the eyes of her husband). Taken together, the three stories are a long arc of misunderstandings, lies, betrayals, and mental illness. Eva never seems to know what she wants, frustrating everyone around her with her capriciousness. Curiously, it’s only when her husband takes a turn as narrator that we find out why Eva is the way she is. But, like the husband, we have to ask whether or not Eva’s behavior is forgivable. We have to wonder if it’s possible to reconcile the hurt a person causes with understanding that they can’t not hurt people and that they only do it by accident. Perhaps its only possible with the kind of double-think Eva’s husband develops over the years.

Mothers is a challenging read. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that touches the emotional snarls these stories do. While things are resolved (at least somewhat), I still feel unsettled by this book. Readers who like to practice armchair psychiatry will love this collection. Readers with their own unresolved traumas may want to shy away; all of the stories powerfully evoke un-resolvable emotional conflicts that these readers may not want to invite into their brains.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

The Dark Blue Overcoat and Other Stories from the North, edited by Sjón

36417302The stories in The Dark Blue Overcoat are written by authors from every Scandinavian country, including the Faroe Islands. At least two of the authors are indigenous. They are also translated into English by a complement of translators. Under Icelandic author Sjón’s direction, the stories take us across the north from remote villages to cities, ethnic Scandinavians to immigrants—all with a distinctly un-hygge sense of fractures in culture and society.

Some of the standout stories from the collection include:

“Don’t Kill Me. I Beg You. This is My Tree,” by Hassan Blasim and translated by Jonathan Wright. This story features an Iraqi refuge in Helsinki who now works as a bus driver. We know him only as the Tiger and it isn’t long before we learn that he received asylum under false pretenses. In this story, the Tiger is haunted by what may be the ghost of a man he murdered in an orchard before he fled the country.

“May Your Union Be Blessed,” by Carl Jóhan Jensen and translated by Kate Sanderson. What I love most about this odd little story set in the Faroe islands is that the main text of the story—a gossipy family history full of sex—is immediately contradicted by corrective footnotes full of academic references to what “really” happened in the Ryggalt-Hermanson family. I could feel the amused smirk on my face the entire time I was reading it. Also, I am always a sucker for archly written footnotes.


Obligatory fjord photo (Image of Geirangerfjord, Norway via Wikicommons)

“San Francisco,” by Naviaq Korneliussen and translated by Charlotte Barslund. This story moved me most. Here, Fia, a Greenlander, makes her way across the United States on a mourning journey after the death of her lover, Sara. This one of the longer entries in the collection, giving us plenty of time for Fia to reveal the shame she feels about her sexuality and her overwhelming guilt at possibly causing Sara’s death in a motorcycle accident. When Fia arrives in San Francisco, a place she knows as a safe, open city for LGBTQ+ people, there’s a small glimmer of hope that Fia might be able to become confident in her sexuality.

Some of the stories are stranger than others. Some are distinctly poststructural or supernatural. At the end of the book, I was left with the impression that Hamlet’s Danish rot had spread across the region. There are a lot of broken families here, and a lot of alcohol abuse. Readers looking for comfort on cold winter nights should look elsewhere. But readers for whom Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen is not unsettling enough should enjoy this collection.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 9 October 2018.

Clinch, by Martin Holmén

Even though I finished Martin Holmén’s Clinch (translated by Henning Koch), I’m still not sure if I like it or not. I was attracted to the novel because of its setting. I’ve said it before, but I’m a sucker for places and times I haven’t read previously read about. Holmén’s Stockholm of the 1930s was fascinating. What I’m not sure about is the main character, Harry Kvist. At the opening of Clinch, Kvist makes his living repossessing bicycles from people who’ve stopped paying for them and occasionally putting pressure on folks who’ve stopped paying larger debts. He’s not afraid to use his fists. He’s a former boxer, so violence comes naturally to him. What I’m not sure about is Kvist’s penchant for rough sex with partners who don’t have the same tastes.

Clinch begins, as so many noir novels do, with an ordinary job. Kvist has been sent to “encourage” a man to resume making payments on a big loan from a wealthy farmer outside of Stockholm. The man seems appropriately “willing” after Kvist hits him a couple of times and destroys a mirror. As if Kvist’s character wasn’t clear enough yet, we see him pick up a man, who we later learn is called Leonard, and drive to a secluded location. Leonard is willing enough at first, but Kvist doesn’t ask consent before pushing things into the painful. The encounter ends with Kvist knocking Leonard out with a punch to the jaw.

Shortly thereafter, Kvist is arrested for murdering the debtor. The ordinary job has unfortunately linked him to bigger crimes that he spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out who framed him and who really killed the debtor. I was tempted to stop reading Clinch after Kvist punched Leonard. I gave the novel a few more pages to convince me to keep going. After Kvist is arrested, then temporarily released due to lack of conclusive evidence, the ex-boxer walks the streets of Stockholm, looking for the prostitute who can give him an alibi and looking for clues to clear his name. Kvist is not a good detective, but I kept reading because I wanted to see old Stockholm.

The central mystery in Clinch is anything but clear. None of the usual motives about money or anger or jealousy seem to apply. The only skills Kvist has as a detective are the ability to get information out of people and surviving all attempts by his unknown enemies to kill him.

I can’t sat that I was entirely glad to stick with Clinch. While I did learn more about Kvist’s past—arrests for homosexual activity, his deceased child and lost wife, his failed boxing career—I could not get past his casual sadism. There are several sex scenes in the book that begin consensually, but Kvist always takes things further than his partner wants. When he questions people, Kvist does more than hit them; he often add something humiliating or particularly painful. If you are triggered by any of this, avoid Clinch.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 June 2016.

The Other Son, by Alexander Söderberg

The Other Son, by Alexander Söderberg, picks up a few months after the series debut, The Andalucian Friend, ends. Sophie Brinkmann, a Swedish nurse, seems to have adjusted to her life as the face of a criminal organization headed by her boyfriend, Hector Guzman. She travels the globe, reassuring partners and suppliers and buyers, while Hector languishes in a coma. Hector’s absence is beginning to be felt, however. We rejoin Sophie in a meeting in Istanbul. The man she’s meeting with is giving her strange vibes. The meeting suddenly becomes an assassination attempt and Sophie barely escapes with her life. The Other Son kicks off with a bang and doesn’t let up until the last page.

The Other Son shifts narrators and locations rapidly. Most of the chapters end in gunfights. This may sound more like a complaint than not, but Söderberg pulls it off. One of the most common flaws of thriller series is that they either assume that a reader has not only read but memorized everything that’s already happened or has suffered complete amnesia since the last entry. Söderberg strikes a nice balance between the two. It’s been a few years since I read The Andalucian Friend and details about what happened were hazy. Because Söderberg switches narrators between Sophie, the police investigating her, Hector’s allies, and Hector’s enemies, it’s easy to pick up on the backstory.

After Sophie is nearly killed in Istanbul, she returns to Stockholm to regroup with the remains of Hector’s organization. Their mission is to maintain the organization until (if) Hector wakes up. If word gets out about Hector—who, by this point, hasn’t been seen in public for about five months—rival organizations will declare open season on Hector’s group. Of course, Hector’s rivals, the German Hankes, are already at war with them. They’re the reason Hector’s in a coma in the first place, though even they don’t know this. The Hankes decide to kidnap both Hector’s illegitimate German son and Sophie’s son in order to get both parents out into the open. Most of The Other Son revolves around schemes and counter-plots to get the boys back.

The only flaw in The Other Son is a common one for thriller series. Söderberg avoided the pitfalls of infodumps, but stubbled on the ending of this book. The Other Son is clearly a prelude to the next installment of the series and leaves a lot of plots unresolved.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for review consideration. It will be released 21 July 2015.