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This author was four books in by the time I caught up with Karin Alvtegen, great-niece of Astrid Lindgren (creator of Pippi Longstocking), courtesy of Canongate, her UK translated-into-English publisher. (Translated by McKinley Burnett.) The tense and heart-gripping opening of Shadow drew me in: a vulnerable little boy, who knew how to behave because of his mother's directions, and concentrated on them forcefully, was left on the steps of an amusement park, with little but a Bambi audio story to amuse him over the forthcoming hours and with his loyal little heart full of concern that he adhered to the discipline instilled in him. He was anxious to pee, but he had been told not to move, so he held on. Only when a guard came and he could hold on no more and he found a small scrap of trust in that new adult, did he run for the loo. In his absence the guard was able to sort through the child's meagre belongings and find a note which said "Take care of this child. Forgive me."
Then, through her lonely death, Alvtegen introduces us to the life of Gerda Persson, as the district commissioner's estate administrator, Marianne Folkesson attempts to seek the dead woman's next of kin. As she leaves the woman's home, she has one clue with which to make a start: signed copies of books by Nobel Prize-winning author Axel Ragnerfeldt. And so a tale begins that follows three generations of Ragnerfeldts and the few people who made it into their private lives. The behaviour of the various Ragnerfeldts suggests that the apples are not ripe in the orchard and over time, secrets, bitterness, forced motivations and revenge are allowed to unfold. And eventually, we also find out what happened to that poor boy and his mother.
The story has a slow build in the first half; I believe this is down to the fact that once the boy's story has pulled the reader in, it is not revisited and we are introduced to quite a few other characters before any link is made. But as the secrets and history of the Ragnerfeldts unfold, the novel ratchets up a gear to a compelling end.
And dear God, what a bleak emotional landscape we encounter. Just when you think you've hit rock bottom with this family, another seedy, despicable worm crawls out from their woodwork. It is a tale of a family with no sense of belonging and real family values: indeed, the focus for motivation lies firmly elsewhere. Alvtegen does lighten the reading with the occasional piece of dry humour such as this:
"…She gave a heavy sigh and dialled Alice Ragnerfeldt's number instead. It rang many times, but that was not unusual. Her mother-in-law sometimes suffered from vascular cramps and claimed that the doctor said that a capful of whisky each morning was good medicine. Louise had no idea how big a cap was on the doctor's bottle, but the one on her mother-in-law's was clearly enormous. After the twelth ring she answered…"
If you like to explore the deepest, darkest recesses of the mind's capability, then hang onto your patience for the first half and you will find a compelling novel with Shadow. As it draws to a close, there are many surprising incidents. Unlike other authors, Alvtegen does not seek the justice element to make us feel that good can overcome evil on all (or even some) occasions, which makes for an off-piste ending. Human form in all its vulnerability and complete ugliness is present in this novel and she explores it well.
Having read this Alvtegen novel first, I am fearful of seeking more and going back-to-back. A period of lighter reading beckons. But this is a good – if heart-breaking – novel and I will definitely be seeking more in the future.
Shadow is available now in the UK from Canongate Books.