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THE BOY IN THE SUITCASE
by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis
Soho, November 2011
304 pages
$24.00
ISBN: 156947981X


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Nina Borg, Red Cross nurse, wife, mother of two, is dedicated to aiding illegal refugees, battered women, and those generally overlooked by society at large. Although she and her friend Karin have followed increasing divergent paths over the years, with Karin abandoning social activism for a more comfortable life, Nina cannot refuse when Karin calls her in a panic and begs her to retrieve a suitcase from a locker in Copenhagen's Central Station. When Nina does, she discovers a drugged and naked three-year-old boy. Nina's experiences with Danish officialdom have convinced her of their lack of compassion, so it does not take a great deal for her to flee with the child in order to save him, rather than turning him over to social services or the police.

The story is told in fairly short chapters that alternate focus on various characters in the drama -

Sigita, the mother of the little boy, living in Lithuania; Jucas, who put the suitcase into the locker and is demanding a huge sum for it; Jan, Karin's employer, rich and unhappy and willing to pay for the suitcase, and of course, Nina herself. Fragmenting the narrative this way certainly ratchets up the tension as it affords the opportunity for a number of mini-climaxes as well as delaying the revelation of what precisely is at stake here until the last possible moment.

But the technique has its downside too and it's a serious one. For most of the book, we cannot understand why Nina behaves as she does. Most of us, finding an unconscious little boy in a suitcase, would call the cops. Nina almost makes a report and then is deterred by her lack of faith in the Danish police, who she feels might turn the boy over like a piece of lost luggage to whoever checked him in the first place. She appears to feel that she is "the only one who can save the world and put things right," but some years ago she was so overwhelmed by new motherhood that she flew off to Liberia to work for a medical charity, leaving behind her five-month-old daughter siting in a pool of her own pee to be cared for by her astonished husband. It's a pattern that would continue for some time. One is irresistibly reminded of Dickens' "telescopic philanthropist" Mrs Jellyby in BLEAK HOUSE. To his credit, Nina's husband has remained understanding and supportive over the years, though he still wonders if she might not undertake another philanthropic flit at any moment.

It is only in the very final pages of the book that we learn a vital detail about Nina's life that goes some way toward explaining her compulsions and that may make readers more sympathetic to her. Withholding the information until the very last second is in keeping with the narrative strategy of the book as a whole, but it does risk losing some impatient readers along the way who simply give up on Nina. In the end, it largely depends on a matter of taste; what I found rather manipulative may strike others as inventive and exciting.

In any event, this is the first in a series, and the first to be translated. Now that I know a bit about Nina and her demons, I certainly look forward to the next installment to see where her creators take her.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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