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Alvtegen, Karin - 'Shadow' (translated by McKinley Burnett)
Paperback: 320 pages (Feb. 2009) Publisher: Canongate Books ISBN: 1847671705

SHADOW opens in 1975 with the discovery of a four-year old boy who has been abandoned in a park. The boy, Kristoffer, is bought up by foster parents, and when an adult becomes an addict and drifter. The only thing that connects him with his forgotten childhood is his receipt of money every month until he is 18 a small amount but sufficient to fund his dissolute lifestyle. When the money dries up, he realises that this is a chance for a fresh start. He's obsessed and intensely ashamed by his past, but he determines to clean himself up and become a writer. He befriends another struggling young author, Jesper, and the two provide each other with some mutual support. Kristoffer, however, is too repressed to tell anyone that he was abandoned and rejected, and that he has no idea who he is.

A 92-year-old woman, Gerda, dies in her flat. As she seems to have no relatives or friends, Marianne from the social services department is put in charge of sorting out Gerda's affairs and organising her funeral. During the course of this process, she discovers that Gerda lived for most of her adult life as the maid of Axel Ragnerfeldt, a Nobel laureate for literature, and his family. Axel is now an old man, paralysed by a stroke and unable to communicate except by moving his little finger. Marianne therefore contacts Axel's son, Jan-Erik, who has made a profession of setting up a foundation in his father's name, and who goes around giving lectures and readings from his books. Jan-Erik is trapped in a loveless marriage, which he does not leave because of the terms of his father's will.

As this compelling book progresses, we learn more of the history of four generations of the Ragnerfeldt family, the dynamics and secrets between husbands, wives, parents and children, as well as the professional rivalries between friends. The connection between the Ragnerfeldts and Kristoffer becomes slightly less obscure when we learn of a literary evening in which a younger Axel and his friend and fellow-author Torgny meet a beautiful young woman called Halina. She is a survivor of the Holocaust who has a terrible past. In her first scene, she tells Axel a fable, and asks him which of the five characters in it is the "least wrong". Axel's answer is prophetic; subsequent events play out the fable, with each character in SHADOW taking the role of the people in Halina's story.

One often reads the word "unputdownable" to describe a book it is certainly a true description of this one. As the novel reaches its climax, I was on the edge of my seat, my heart was pounding, and by the end I felt wrecked. It has strong parallels with Wuthering Heights, in which two "normal" people (Gerda as Nelly Dean and Marianne as Lockwood) are the filter through which the reader experiences elemental, horrifically tragic and passionate events that are beyond the witness-narrators' comprehension.

This superb novel has so many layers and depths, concerning the biological and societal adaptations of consciousness; the experiences and consequences of the process of creative writing, its "success" and "failure"; an empathy and confidence in describing historical events; and the emotions of friendship, betrayal, passion and rage, simmering and erupting in a seemingly placid environment. The characters, whether central or subsidiary, are all rounded, and even the unsympathetic ones are given full opportunity to present their point of view. I was particularly impressed with the depictions of Kristoffer, whose desperate search for the meaning of his life through his past is unbearably tragic; the brave Halina, who struggles to transcend the ineradicable scars of her horrific past life, overcoming one terrible setback but encountering another awful one once she meets Axel; and Jan-Erik's sad wife Louise. The icing on the cake is that the plot is complete, clever, convoluted and convincing - the author does not flinch from following it through to the bitter end.

SHADOW is a brilliant and rich book, which has had a tremendous impact on me. I urge you to read it as soon as you can.

Maxine Clarke, England
March 2009

Maxine blogs at

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 22/03/2009 09:51