Saturday, 15 October 2011

ASA LARSSON'S UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST

The thaw is a crucial part of life above the Arctic Circle, and it is a dangerous life, so when the body of a young woman surfaces in a river, it is going to be written off as an accident or suicide until prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson has a vision in a dream, and realises she is dealing with a case of murder.

Asa Larsson's first two novels both won awards in Sweden, so it is interesting to see the chances she takes and different directions she pursues in her third. Martinsson is a compelling lead character, drawn to life in Kiruna (full disclosure here: my grandfather came from a nearby town, and I have never really felt the urge to settle there) despite the prospect of success in Stockholm, That Wilma Persson (a nice choice of name), the dead girl, participates in the story as a ghost, isn't new; it's a device that's won awards for mainstream writers in the English-speaking world, and ghosts have factored in Johan Theorin's work (set in Oland, oddly enough, because it's the other end of Sweden and it's where my grandmother was born). As a devide it frees Larsson from having to worry about making her book into a 'whodunit', but what makes it really effecticve here is the idea that a character as rational and driven as Martinsson, trying to come to grips with the irrational love she has for the area where she was born, it becomes particularly effective as part of the draw of the north.

Martinsson's romantic relationship with her former boss forms one of the one of the sub-plots here, and Larsson contrasts his handsome charm and city slickness with the more homey virtues of one of the male characters. The other big contrast is between Martinsson and Anna-Maria Mella, the police inspector, who has her own problems with men, including her police partner, which were detailed in the previous novel. It's no coincidence that Scandinavian work examines the pressure of work on the domestic lives of women (think about the Danish TV drama The Killing as a recent example, though it factored in the Martin Beck series 50 years ago) because they have long been established as equal in the workplace, yet the inbuilt prejudices are brought out most strongly in this extreme rural setting. Which leads to Until Thy Wrath Be Past's other real strength: its setting.

By setting I don't mean, in this case, the landscape or weather of the north, although Larsson's descriptions are often telling. Rather, it is the rural background; this novel could be transposed into the American south say, fitting somewhere into the territory of Erskine Caldwell or James Dickey's Deliverance, or perhaps more closely into the Maine of Stephen King, John Connolly or Michael Kimball. It is the people, and in the Krekula brothers Larsson creates two frighteningly vivid villains who are recognisable to anyone who has spent time in those rural areas with their undercurrent of repressed violence. Although Hjalmar, the oversized adolescent, a violent savant, seems familiar from other stories, but he is drawn with depth and sympathy, while the viciousness of Tore, the brother in control, is palpable, and made more so when it is unleashed in a very modest way, on Anna-Maria.

It's also fascinating, because the brothers are trying to protect a secret which has remained hidden for many decades, and which relates back to a time of what in Sweden was divisive (I'm thinking of how America's Southern gothics refer back to the Civil War). In the far north of Sweden, during World War II, the plight of the 'plucky Finns' was very close at hand, as were the Nazi trains moving men and materiel between Finland and Norway. The changing allies in the years between 1939 and 41 made choosing sides difficult all over the world, but the quiet role many Swedes (and indeed some Norwegians)and their businesses enjoyed while supporting the Germans has been a feature of many books, not least Asa Larsson's namesake Steig. That it should remain a somewhat contentious issue seven decades later speaks to its power.

Until Thy Wrath is a many-layered novel, deftly written and as best I can tell, well-translated by Laurie Thompson. And if the ghost story is indeed resolved, and the past revealed, it leaves enough of Martinsson's life unsettled to make readers look forward to the next one.

Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson
Maclehose Press, £12.99, ISBN 9780857050724
NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time
www.crimetime.co.uk

1 comment :

Maxine said...

I loved this book - as I did the previous three (not two) - Sun Storm, The Savage Altar, and The Black Path have all been published in English translation by Marlaine Delargy, by Penguin. Quercus have now picked her up from #4 with a different translator, Laurie Thompson.