Karin Alvtegen, Shadow, translated from the Swedish by McKinley Burnett (London: Canongate 2009 ). A gripping psychological thriller, but one which tips over into melodrama at times 4 stars
Opening sentence: The key to the flat had arrived in a padded envelope from the police.
Karin Alvtegen’s Shadow immediately caught my eye with its rather intriguing opening. When 92-year-old Gerda Persson dies alone, estate administrator Marianne Folkesson visits her flat to glean the details of her life, and finds the freezer packed with signed copies of books by prize-winning author Axel Ragnerfeld. What on earth could have led Gerda to put them there? And what connection might they have to a young boy who was abandoned in an amusement park back in 1975?
So far so good: a literary puzzle that leads the reader into the dark heart of a family’s story – as well as that of a traumatised Holocaust survivor – and expertly keeps us wanting to know more. Well-written and gripping, and with a multi-layered, uncompromising ending, Shadow is in many respects a highly enjoyable read. In particular, I found many of the novel’s characters sensitively drawn, and their relationships described with a keen eye for psychological detail. Alvtegen is particularly good at exploring human weaknesses, and the kind of personal prisons individuals create for themselves without even realising what they are doing. Tracing the consequences of these weaknesses, and of the criminal decisions or actions they generate, are the novel’s great strength.
However … there was one element of Alvtegen’s story-telling that grated, namely a tendency to melodrama in the final third of the novel. There came a point where so many dramatic events were piled on top of one another that the narrative threatened to tip over into ridiculousness, and to undo the finely observed psychological detail of the rest of the novel. This tendency also weakened the depiction of a couple of characters, whose actions at certain moments just didn’t ring true.
In spite of these reservations, I did enjoy the novel, and found that the questions it raised about life choices, trauma and morality lingered on. In particular, the ‘one last question’ on the final page of the book stayed with me for a number of days after closing its covers.
Mrs. Peabody awards Shadow a thoughtful 4 stars.
Trivia special, courtesy of @Petrona: Karin Alvtegen is the great-niece of Pippi Long-stocking author Astrid Lindgren. Petrona’s own excellent review of Shadow can be read on the Euro Crime blog (and contains a more detailed description of some elements of the plot).