Alvtegen, Karin - 'Betrayal' (translated by Steven T Murray)
The description and dissection of a failing marriage that takes up the first chapters of BETRAYAL is one of the most realistic and gripping accounts I have read of how happy expectations gradually wither into the ashes of hard work, obligations, indifference and exhaustion. Eva and Henrik seem to have it all: he's a freelance writer, she a successful businesswoman. They have a four-year-old son, Axel (who still sleeps between them at night) and her parents, if not his, are supportive and always on-hand to babysit. What goes wrong? Henrik has gradually become resentful of his wife's decisiveness and leadership in all matters. Eva has become aware of what is missing in her grey life (as she sees it) - the weariness, the inadequacy, the rare commodity of time even in an era of more and more time-saving devices, the overwhelming influx of information that the human brain has not evolved to be able to handle.
Interspersed with the account of this stressed-out woman and her feelings of inadequacy is another story, that of Jonas, a young man whose partner Anna has suffered an accident and is in a coma. Jonas has been devotedly visiting Anna for two years (this being Sweden, he has been "off sick" from his job as a postman for all this time) and providing her with physical therapy and kind conversation. Jonas, however, is not what he seems. Soon we realise he has an obsessive-compulsive disorder and has suffered a particularly nasty childhood, chillingly portrayed. Yet Eva, who has had the opposite experience of an idyllic early life, is driven by her need to provide Axel with a "safe childhood home", a purely self-imposed drive that fuels her poisonous feelings towards Henrik. It is as if she is in competition with her own parents to be better than them, while at the same time being unable to admit to them that her marriage is in trouble - yet the older couple are the very people who understand, and hence support, her the most.
Eventually things come to a head for Eva when she realises that the main reason for Henrik's indifference is that he is having a secret affair. She soon unearths the most likely suspect, and in her bitterness and rage, takes an evil revenge. She also meets Jonas, an encounter that is going to have devastating consequences.
BETRAYAL is a compelling read, in which the tension is almost unbearable. The author's psychological insight is sharp: we identify with each character while we see the world through their eyes, but when the author pulls back and shows a more objective view, we realise things are definitely not as they had seemed. Each player in this grim story is locked into their own particular emotional straitjacket, all of which are cleverly, and with almost unbearable tension, built up into a perfect house of cards. It's all going to come tumbling down, but for who, and how? The final chapters are horrifically chilling - but in common with the very best of Scandinavian crime fiction, no car chases, fancy technology, thrills or spills are necessary for the gut-wrenching impact. This novel is psychological suspense at its finest.
Maxine Clarke, England