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QUICKSAND
by Malin Persson Giolito and Rachel Willson-Broyles, trans.
Other Press, March 2017
512 pages
$25.95
ISBN: 1590518578


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Maja Norberg, the narrator of QUICKSAND, is not your average teenager. First, she is the daughter of a prosperous couple living in the most affluent of Stockholm suburbs, Djursholm. She attends a prestigious high school. She is the girlfriend of Sebastian Fagerman, son of the richest man in Sweden. And she is on trial for her involvement in a shooting that left her closest friend, a teacher, several other students, and Sebastian himself dead on the floor of their classroom. This last fact is particularly anomalous, as there has never been a case of a school shooting in Sweden involving a female perpetrator. In fact, there has never been a school shooting in Sweden at all, at least to date.

As the novel opens, Maja has been incarcerated for nine months awaiting trial. Now at last she is in the courtroom and prepared to related the proceedings as well as recollect everything that led up to her being on trial not just to inform the reader, but to attempt to come to some understanding for herself of what happened. She is here in order to be judged - to be found guilty or innocent in the eyes of the law, but she is also trying to figure it out for herself. She is not certain which she is or neither and as the trial stretches on for three weeks, she revisits the past to try to come to some conclusion regarding her own moral status.

The author does not take an easy road here. Maja is an interesting and complicated figure but not an immediately attractive one. She has a strong streak of adolescent cynicism that makes her doubt the intentions of virtually everyone and certainly every institution. If she were speaking aloud, she would be depending on air quotes to convey her contempt for what she can see and for what she believes she can see through. She is pitiless in her disdain for her loving but rather hapless parents, unable to accept whatever small kindnesses she is offered, and convinced that she is singular in her comprehension of the social ills of contemporary Swedish society. She unreservedly loves just one person, and, like Holden Caulfield, who the author has said influenced this book, it is her small sister.

But as Maja relates the history of her involvement with Sebastian, it gradually becomes clear that Maja herself was subject to an unreasonable set of expectations and demands that she could not possibly fulfill. Sebastian was the object of his father's intense disapproval to which he responds by acting as badly as he can. He failed his final year, which is why he is back to repeat it, and now attends irregularly, sometimes only to score some drugs. He gives wild parties in his father's mansion and in his absence. He has far too much access to far too much luxury (he and Maja spend the first weeks of their relationship on a cruise on his father's yacht). And his father's disdain has unsurprisingly encouraged Sebastian to feel deeply wronged and constantly enraged.

In Maja's view, her parents were unduly impressed when she began to go out with the son of the richest man in Sweden. And perhaps they were, though it's hard to say if they could have stopped her. As Sebastian's mental state continues to deteriorate, not only he, but those around her, press her to somehow salvage his life, a task far beyond the ability of anyone, let alone a seventeen-year-old with problems of her own.

In the end, the trial comes to a conclusion, though not until the verdict is read will the reader be certain what it will be. Indeed, even after the legal process concludes, not every reader will agree with the verdict it reached. We have been party to so many considerations that the law court cannot entertain that we may feel that it is impossible to answer the question with complete certainty. But that, of course, is probably true for many cases that come to court.

I did experience one problem with this otherwise excellent novel and that involves the translation. Giolito (who is fluent in English) has expressed pleasure at the quality of Willson-Broyles rendering and she is right - it is fluid, idiomatic, and sensitive. But it is translated into very aggressively American idiom. (I understand that the UK release is more British.) I don't think Willson-Broyles had much of a choice - when you're translating teenage speech, it has to be in a local idiom - but the unfortunate result is that this reader, at least, felt displaced. The peculiarities of the Swedish judicial system coupled with a first-person narrator who sounds as if she had grown up in Greenwich, Connecticut is somewhat unsettling.

That aside, QUICKSAND should certainly attract a wide readership and should be popular with book clubs as it provides a great deal of serious content along with a sympathetic portrait of a contemporary young woman who, though very privileged, is subject to the expectations and demands that still afflict women even now and even in liberated Sweden. The book was named Best Swedish Crime Novel last year and should be a serious contender for a CWA International Dagger for 2017.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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