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BOX 21
by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström
Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, October 2009
393 pages
ISBN: 0374282951

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction has gained a reputation not only for its atmospheric settings and melancholic detectives, but also for its incisive social commentary and self-reflection. But though a vast majority of these novels are undoubtedly grim—featuring everything from gruesome murders and domestic abuse to underground drug trafficking and neo-Nazism—there is almost always an underlying sense of hopefulness. Reading the novels of authors such as Karin Fossum, Arnaldur Indridason, and Henning Mankell, a reader has the sense that although their stories so often describe rampant abuse and corruption, they ultimately believe that societal change is possible, and that in the end, some sort of justice or truth will prevail.

This model has become complicated of late as Scandinavian authors—notably Steig Larsson—exemplify more cynical, hardened worldviews than many readers might expect. Swedish writing team Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström (the former a journalist, the latter an "ex-criminal who helps rehabilitate young offenders and drug addicts") will likely soon share Larsson's reputation for hardened heroines, grisly violence, and scathing social commentary.

BOX 21 is a story of intersecting fates which lays bare Stockholm's gruesome underbelly. First, the reader is introduced to Lydia and Alena, two young Lithuanian girls who have been forced into sexual slavery. After a particularly brutal assault, Lydia is taken to the hospital, where her path crosses with that of a frenzied heroin junkie, a mob enforcer who's just been released from prison, and Ewert Grens, a surly police officer with a tragic past and an all-consuming love of Swedish 60s pop star Siw Malmkvist. It's there that Lydia enacts a vengeful plan to reveal the man responsible for her prostitution and achieve her own belated justice.

While the novel cannot be accused of reveling in the grimness of the events it unfolds, it neither minimizes nor tempers the stark violence and despair that fill its pages. Though Roslund and Hellström published their fifth novel this year, BOX 21 is their first novel to be translated into English. The language is sparse and direct, dispensing with descriptive turns of phrase in favor of a blunt staccato of clipped sentences which relate episodes of violence in a simmering monotone. "Some men wanted to beat her," Lydia recalls in an early passage. "She let them. They paid an extra hundred and she took the blows." (The translation - an ensemble effort - unfortunately remains uncredited, a decision apparently made when the novel was first translated into English for its UK publisher.)

You won't find any mood-lightening humor sprinkled about, or even many scenes of characters' lives outside the immediate realm of the story. This immediacy becomes increasingly stifling—almost claustrophobic—as even the novel's seemingly just and morally upstanding characters are implicated in the cycles of violence and malignant secrecy that Lydia fought to disrupt.

Lydia's vow, "Never Again," is repeatedly scrawled across book's (American) cover. It's her mantra, and the all-consuming hope that drives her perilous actions. But rather than a novel of redemption, BOX 21 is a screed against the futility of a social system that is fraught with corruption and complicity. Here is a story which reveals how even the most desperate measures, the most shocking truth, can be quietly swept away and quickly forgotten.

Reviewed by Larissa Kyzer, November 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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