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by Karin Fossum and K.E. Semmel, trans.
Harvill Secker, August 2011
304 pages
$21.00 CAD
ISBN: 1846553938

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Johnny Beskow is seventeen. The son of an alcoholic mother, he is bitter and filled with rage. He feels close only to his grandfather, old, arthritic, and frightened of wasps, whom he visits frequently, if only to get away from his mother. Johnny has fantasies of appalling violence, but what he actually performs are mean little tricks on various members of the middle-class community near to where he lives. He wants, he says, to stir things up. He smears ox blood over a baby sleeping in her pram yards from her unsuspecting parents. He posts a fake obituary in the local newspaper. He summons an undertaker to the house of an invalid. All mean-spirited, but physically harmless, pranks.

But what Johnny does not, indeed cannot, anticipate, are the unintended consequences that his nasty acts have on his victims. These are all people who have been leading comfortable, protected lives in a safe and civilized country. Unprepared for any assault on their sense of security, they are shaken to the core by these evidently random attacks. We suspect that Johnny's little campaign against complacency will end in horror and so it does.

Fossum's police hero, Insp Sejer, takes these events very seriously and he investigates them carefully. But THE CALLER is less a police procedural than it is a philosophical thriller, and the questions it raises strike a most disturbing note in the light of the massacre that took place in Norway last summer, several years after THE CALLER was first published. Oddly, as far as I can figure out, the Norwegian title of the book, Varslerer, is much stronger than the present bland English version. It seems to carry the implication of warning or notification, rather than of simple visit. Certainly nothing that occurs in this novel comes anywhere close to the real horror of the murders on the island of Utya, but the sense (unfortunately illusory) of a paradise lost is common to them both. So too, or so I imagine, is the crushing weight of parental responsibility and regret that must follow when harm comes to a child.

Or so it appears. Not knowing Norwegian, I can only guess that this is what Karin Fossum had in mind, because what I read was the typically arthritic, determinedly literal English translation that publishers apparently figure will do for crime fiction. The ambiguous and intriguing conclusion, presumably intended to leave the reader with much to mull over, suggests that the original novel is considerably more subtle than it appears in translation. I cannot help wondering what I would have thought of this book had it been left in Charlotte Barslund's capable hands. Unfortunately, the novel English-speaking readers are left with is this one, and this version is not good enough.

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

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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