Fossum, Karin - 'The Water's Edge' (translated by Charlotte Barslund)
Karin Fossum brings her usual cool empathy to this apparently simple tale of a married couple out for a Sunday afternoon walk in the forest, who discover the body of a young boy. The wife, Kristine, is deeply upset by the discovery, which brings into focus her own long-standing desire for a child, and the refusal of her husband, Reinhardt, to have a family. Reinhardt, on the other hand, is excited by the discovery, taking photos of the boy on his mobile phone (to the shock of Kristine) so he can show his friends, who he invites round for a grim dinner party to regale them with the find, and even, later on, attending the funeral of the dead boy and witnessing the mother's grief.
The first half of this novel is more of a dissection of a marriage than a mystery. Kristine sees a man walking away from her just before discovering the dead boy, and it seems likely that he's the perpetrator. Rather than condemning, the author remains non-judgemental and detached, showing the reader how life appears not only from the criminal's perspective but also through the eyes of detectives Sejer and Skarre, who seek to understand how someone could be a paedophile, rather than starting a witch-hunt. To this end, the police colleagues interview Philip Akeson, a sex offender who has done his time and been released back into society - and although like everyone, I find the whole subject of sex offences revolting (particularly where children are involved), I admire the author for going where few dare to tread, presenting the arguments fairly and even with sympathy and humour, not least because Akeson is shown as being rather likeable.
Half-way though the book, a second boy disappears. His name is Edwin and he's obese. He went to the same primary school as Jonas August, the dead boy, so detectives and village-folk alike suspect that the same person is responsible. By now, the reader knows quite a bit about Jonas August's killer, and we know it isn't the con-man boyfriend of Edwin's mother or the gay teacher at school who is very friendly to all the boys and invites them to his house to do jigsaws (to the consternation of his partner) - but never asks the girls. Who is implicated in Edwin's disappearance is an open question, however.
As usual, I am very impressed by Karin Fossum's talent and originality. In THE WATER'S EDGE she has taken an upsetting and controversial topic– the painful death of a child or children - and has made it palatable and interesting even to a sensitive reader who, frankly, cannot usually bear to think about the subject. The author uses the events in the book to look at people, their attitudes and relationships, in both small and large ways. Some of these are fleeting - how the villagers react to immigrant farm workers or the parents' association's suspicion of the gay teacher once Edwin disappears - and others are dissected in more detail, such as Kristine's gradual pulling away from her dominant marriage partner, or the study of Edwin's mother. All of this is done with insight, yet the mystery builds up almost under the surface of the book and, by the end of the novel, is sufficiently resolved for us to know what happened, without having all the loose ends artificially tied up.
Sejer and Skarre are relatively insubstantial characters, serving mainly to keep the plot going and to provide a neutral vehicle for the exploration of various human behaviours. Occasionally one of them might have a personal reflection, for example Sejer thinks of his daughter and his grandson - but on the whole their personal lives remain on the back-burner while the author looks at the reflections from all the faces of the prism of her characters and the situations that they have created for themselves. This is a wonderful book, short and haunting, and beautifully naturally translated. If you read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Read another review of THE WATER'S EDGE.
Maxine Clarke, England