Larsson, Asa - 'The Savage Altar' (translated by Marlaine Delargy)
I was a bit worried when I finally picked up this book, as I'd waited a long time to read it, and it comes garlanded with awards and rave reviews. Could it live up to its reputation? Emphatically, yes.
Rebecka Martinsson is a struggling young lawyer, working insanely long hours to get a foot on the ladder, despite an unsympathetic boss and a corporate environment as cold as the Swedish seasons. She sees on the TV news that an Victor Strandgard, an old friend has been murdered in Kiruna, a remote village in the north. Before she can assimilate this information, she is phoned by a "Moomin troll", otherwise known as Sanna, the dead man's sister, prime suspect for the murder, and Rebecka's ex-flatmate and ex-best friend.
Rebecka is forced to jeopardise her shaky career to return to her roots in Kiruna, the place where she grew up, made her childhood mistakes, and began her involvement with the oppressive church group of which Victor was a leading light. We learn that when young, Victor was involved in a car accident, but survived even though his heart stopped. He subsequently wrote a bestselling book of his post-death experience that is the financial mainstay of the Kiruna church and the main source of its success, as Victor refuses to profit by his religion, allowing the church's three unpleasant pastors and their even more unpleasant wives to exploit the situation.
Rebecka enters this mixture of past dread and present suspicion determined simply to help Sanna through her interview with the police but get no more involved with Sanna and her troubles. Her resolve is immediately broken by Sanna's mental instability and the physical state of her two children, as well as the increasing likelihood that Sanna was involved in Victor's death. Unwillingly, and to her boss's fury, she becomes Sanna's lawyer, is accused of assaulting a TV reporter, and tries to drag Sanna's children, if not Sanna herself, back into normal functioning.
The detectives investigating Victor's murder are the heavily pregnant Anna-Maria Mella, who is supposed to be on desk duty until the birth of her child, Sven-Erik Stalnacke, her deputy who will be covering for her maternity leave, and their odious, publicity seeking boss, Carl von Post. The empathy of Anna-Maria and Sven-Erik for Rebecka and Sanna allows the truth of Victor's death gradually to be realised, rather than being brushed under the carpet by the church officials and the talentless von Post. To find out what really happened, Rebecka has to come to terms with her own past and the hypocrisy of the pastors, as well as face up to Sanna and Victor's demons – most chillingly, to their smug father and complicit mother.
This book is incredibly assured; it is hard to believe it is a first novel. The shifts between past and present, rural and city values, old times (symbolised by the most attractive character in the book, the old neighbour Sivving Fjallborg, as well as Rebecka's dead grandmother) and modern relationships, are all told in a spare, compelling and deft style. Everything is made to count, never does the book slip into sentimentality, and I was delighted to read in the author's note at the end of the book that Rebecka is to return because she "is not that easy to get rid of".
Read another review of THE SAVAGE ALTAR originally published as SUN STORM in the US.
Maxine Clarke, England