Friday, November 13, 2009

Karin Fossum's Broken

Broken / Karin Fossum; translated by Charlotte Barslund.
London: Vintage, 2009, c2008.
264 p.

I've read all of Karin Fossum's mysteries: she is a Norwegian writer who has a marvellous series of thoughtful yet bleak crime novels, in the recent Scandinavian mystery tradition. Featuring Inspector Sejer, they are about the human implications of crime on victims, police, wider society and the perpetrators themselves. They have a strong sense of place, and unforgettable imagery. They are very good, and since I don't generally enjoy dark, police based mysteries, I have been surprised at how much I admire her work. So I knew I wanted to read this book as soon as I heard it was being published -- but this is not one of the Inspector Sejer novels. In fact it is a standalone, and an unusual one. It is also one of the best books I have read this year.

Though this isn't quite a crime novel it is very suspenseful, and has a natural tension which builds up throughout. There are two narratives underway; as the book begins we are in the company of a middle aged writer, home alone and on her way to bed. Once it's dark she realizes there is a man entering her house, coming into her bedroom. After her fear dies down she realizes he is one of her characters, who has jumped the queue outside her home, so eager is he to have his story told. She gives him a name, Alvar Eide, and this begins the second narrative, the story of Alvar's quiet and very orderly life.

Alvar is a man who likes things in his life to be fully under his control. He works in an art gallery, almost entirely alone; he has his habitual lunch, the same every day; he goes home to his quiet apartment where he reads and sometimes indulges in a glass of sherry. He considers getting a cat but then decides it would be too needy for his taste. His life is running along smoothly until a point of conflict enters his story: a young girl, a heroin addict, turns up in the gallery one winter day and he kindly gives her a cup of coffee. His actions have far flung repercussions as she keeps returning, then appears at his apartment door, throwing his controlled existence off its centre.

Interspersed with the tale of Alvar's struggles are chapters in which the writer discusses the trajectory of the story with Alvar himself. He is a character who finds it hard to demand anything but is desperate to know what the writer is going to do to him. These chapters are full of musings on the creative process, of discussions about free will and destiny which apply both to Alvar's actual story and the ability of the writer to control the direction of the story. They are brilliantly thought provoking interludes and make this book into something really special. Although it could have seemed gimmicky with a lesser writer, Fossum has such control over both elements of the book that both are equally fascinating. Alvar is illuminated as a character within and outside of his actual story, he becomes an extremely sympathetic character as we see him struggle with the idea of somebody else directing his life -- and the thought that his character is his destiny.

It's a seriously brilliant book, I really loved it and will be recommending it to all the writers I know, and to readers who are interested in metafictional devices. I was also struck by what a perfect fit this book is for NaNoWriMo: it begins and concludes in the month of November, and it is partially about the writing process itself. Despite Fossum's straightforward, generally unadorned prose, there are moments of pathos and of poetry, moments that made me stop and consider my own reactions to the ideas in the book. It's beautifully written, original, and has the deepest empathy for all its characters, including the author's doppelganger - our narrator. Again, amazing book, one of my top five this year for sure.


  1. I've heard good things about this writer but have yet to check her out. I'll have to add her to my list!

  2. Wandering Coyote - I hope you'll enjoy her writing; I like the measured tone of her style in contrast with her subject matter. And the plots are quite interesting, with lots of women in them.

  3. I've read (I think) the first three of Fossum's books and enjoyed them very much. Mentally I link her with Henning Mankell (one of my top 3 for several years), another Scandinavian (Mankell is Swedish, Fossum Norwegian). Mankell writes with a style that I find hard to describe but that I quite enjoy; because of him I think of it as a Scandinavian style, and Fossum (to my pleasure) exhibits some of the same characteristics that I enjoy.

    I have a newer book of her's on my TBR pile, but I don't recall what it is, only that I'm anxious to begin.

  4. Jeff - yes, she is similar to Mankell, but I find her easier to read. Have you seen the Wallander tv series made by the BBC? Somehow I didn't mind the violence in them as much as when reading, perhaps because I could cover my eyes ;) I have Fossum's latest mystery still to read and then I will just have to wait for her to write another.


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