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Fossum, Karin - 'Broken' (translated by Charlotte Barslund)
Hardback: 272 pages (June 2008) Publisher: Harvill Secker ISBN: 1846552117

An author wakes one night to find a strange man in her bedroom. One of her prospective characters, he relentlessly persists in trying to make her tell his story. Eventually he gets inside her head and she gives in. She names him Alvar Eide, and thus begins the second narrative.

Alvar Eide is a quiet, unassuming man. He works diligently in an art gallery, is good at his job, has no friends, but enjoys the small pleasures of life: art, reading a good book, sitting contentedly in his home with nothing to bother him or disrupt his orderly life. His only vice is the occasional glass of sherry. He knows his life is unexciting and does not especially mind. However, things change when a young woman, a heroin addict, walks into the gallery. Alvar offers her a cup of coffee to warm her up. Weeks later, she appears again, and then again. It's when she turns up on his doorstep that Alvar's world turn into a place he can no longer control…

I really cannot make my mind up about this rather odd novel. I know this, though: I enjoyed it immensely. It's very much as if Fossum ended up with quite a short book, so decided to incorporate bits and bobs from her writerly notebook as well to flesh it out, conversations she has with the character, who keeps turning up in her life to discuss the turns the story is taking. It's very strange, but not at all jarring, which I found strange. The shifts back into the inner life of the writer are knitted in seamlessly, and in a way that illuminates the main storyline in a subtle ways. On one hand it's a novel about a man's struggle against his own destiny and personality, the tragedies that can happen because people's natures are just the way they are. And on the other hand it's a novel about the creative process, the relationship between the writer and her characters, and how much control the writer has over their characters and plots. I was often caught wondering: how much of this nameless writer is actually Fossum? Is any of her? Is it all of her? Of course, the answer is that it's probably a mixture, but it's a very intriguing mixture, and leaves you asking many questions about how Fossum really comes at writing her fictions. The mirrored themes of destiny are fascinating. On the one hand, Alvar is constantly struggling against his fate in the story, and on the other hand the "writer" struggles with questions of Alvar's destiny too: how much control does she have? How much does he have? Is it changeable at all? Is his nature immoveable? Will it lead him to tragedy no matter what he does? Is the process of writing about a character really like being borne away helpless on a river, all control taken away, or is it more like free-riding in a car, letting it go where it wants knowing you have ultimate control in the form of a brake? As I say, the fact that Fossum inserts these strange, meta-fiction-y chapters really adds brilliant new dimensions to the story, and begs fascinating questions, and certainly made me think about the novel in a different way to how almost any other has. But… I was left asking: was it necessary? The story of Alvar is fascinating and compelling in any case, would make a great tale in and of itself, is there any need for all the post-modern bits? The answer is, I think, no. There's no real need for them, but I think you're left with a more interesting and provoking piece of fiction as a result. The book would be fine without them, but is somehow better with them, in a different way. For a short novel, it sure throws up a huge number of issues!

As ever, Fossum's writing is impeccable. The detailed portrait she paints of Alvar and his character is remarkable. Delicately sketched, he is always fully-formed, always absolutely real and believable. She has an uncanny ability at using such beautifully simple language with such piercing effect. There are no long, complicated words, no convoluted sentences, just simple, direct language. She writes novels like a great poet, knowing that it's not big words that matter, but simple words put in a piercing order. You don't need flashy sentence to use the power of language most effectively, just perfectly formed ones. Coupled with a seemingly bottom-less well of empathy and understanding of her fellow human beings. It's remarkable.

BROKEN is not exactly a crime novel, but it is certainly a novel of suspense, and a masterly portrait of one gentle, decent man whose life is altered by volatile circumstances. It kept me on the edge of my seat, guessing where exactly events were going to lead. It's almost certainly the strangest book I've read in a long while, but it's also one of the most interesting, quietly daring pieces of fiction I've ever come across. It may not be for those who like their reading straight-forward and conventional, but for anyone willing to take something a little out of left-field in the hope of a richer reward, BROKEN is the novel for you. It's profoundly strange but stunning stuff.

Read another review of BROKEN.

Fiona Walker, England
June 2008

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 29/06/2008 11:39