SECOND OPINION: Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

Review published on May 31, 2017.

This is the kind of novel that preys on your thoughts after you finish it; you find yourself reflecting on it. I’m tempted to suggest that this is not just a really good Swedish crime story but an intelligent contemporary European novel. Don’t get me wrong, it is a thoroughly entertaining thriller – tense and witty by turns. It is a page turner and an intense psychological novel. At no time does the pace of the tale slacken or veer off point. Quicksand has a simple elegant prose and structure that allows the reader to effortlessly absorb the deeper meaning of the story and the social critique that runs through it.

Quicksand is set in Sweden; it opens with blood stained Maja Norberg, 17 years old, surveying the aftermath of a high school massacre: “It smells like rotten eggs. The air is hazy with gunpowder smoke. Everyone has been shot but me. I haven’t got so much as a bruise.”

Maja took part in the shooting with her boyfriend Sebastian Fegerman, son of the richest man in Sweden, which does not appears to be in doubt. What is unclear, however, is the extent of her complicity; her reasons for being there, her level of foreknowledge, her guilt by act or omission? The system that engulfs Maja rushes to judgement – the police, lawyers and journalists have imagined a ‘version’ of events. Maybe even some of Maja’s own family and friends doubt her. From the beginning, we follow Maja’s trial through her own eyes; what she comprehends, what she can’t grasp and what she is prepared to reveal as time passes. A complex back story of a decaying society, rich out of control teens, inter-generational misunderstandings, even loathing, and racism emerges. The outrage at the heart of the novel is an extreme example of a breaking point in the strains and stresses that emerge in a broken society.

In the wider European context, Quicksand is highly topical and is a serious look at the impact of immigration – the plight of refugees, travelling from desperate situations and backgrounds at home and facing the challenges that living in a new country poses (acceptance and racism).

The obvious question when something as terrible as a high school massacre occurs is ‘why?’ It is so difficult to comprehend what could have possibly brought it about. Yet the answers are often as banal as they are baffling. The triumph of Quicksand is that Giolito has created characters within this scenario that seem plausible – offering an insight into their lives that rings true.

This is my first foray into the world of the courtroom drama and if I thought this quality of writing were the norm I would be down the bookshop tomorrow finding more like it to read. However, this is both original and a cut above the usual play on guilt or innocence (the complex exciting plot focused on a ‘did he/she do it?’ scenario). Quicksand strays into the literary realm of We Need To Talk About Kevin. So it would be a misnomer to categorise this novel as a courtroom drama (although it can be enjoyed on that level). Entertaining as the mystery element of the novel is, this is much more – an exploration of the inner life of a teenage ‘killer/victim’ and a social critique delving into issues of multiculturalism, class and privilege and questions of motivation for heinous and shocking crimes among young people.

There was only one moment at the end of Quicksand where I feared the possibility that Giolito might bottle the verdict in a sort of ‘you the reader decide’ fashion. Fortunately, there was no such fudge because it would have weakened the story and let down a superbly written novel. I realise now that some of that apprehension I was feeling was actually tension that came from genuinely caring about the impending verdict. This story packs an emotional punch.

From early on, I was taken with the character of Maja Norberg. It was not exactly that I liked her, but I sympathised with her plight. I was intrigued by the story as she wanted to tell it. A sassy teenage narrator with a wry wit and an occasionally jaundiced view of the world. A combination of childlike simplicity and dangerous narcissistic tendencies. Maja is able to recognise ‘its all about me’ in other teenagers, but she is not so clear about that in herself. Her view is both fresh and jaded by turns, sometimes possessing a piercing insight, but the author never exceeds the depth of knowledge and experience of a teenage girl. Maja likes to give everyone a nickname; she refers to one of her solicitors as ‘pancake face’. When talking about her best friend she says: “Sure, Amanda was politically engaged in a Disney channel sort of way.” Of the chief prosecutor she muses: “she hasn’t uttered a single sentence short enough to tweet.” When they dress her in a white blouse and simple skirt to create the right impression in court (‘false’ clothes), Maja knowingly observes that young girls are always ‘in costume’.

We are shown the relationship with her lawyers, the attitude of Sander, lead attorney, who always says that in the end, ‘we’re on you side’, as if this is an answer to her questions about what is going on. It is her future in the balance not theirs.

Maja was drawn to Sebastian, the killer. He was a privileged and hedonistic youth, bored with the parties, with the lifestyle and maybe life. He is dark, racist in an ingrained fashion, troubled and tightly wound, the product of bad parenting – in short, an explosion waiting to happen.

Giolito has a deep understanding of the importance and intensity of feelings in teenage years. Emotions that often go beyond rational thinking, every love affair is life and death, every break up a tragedy, every betrayal the end of the world. In this case all too literally for some.

The translator, Rachel Wilson-Broyles, deserves to be praised for a superb rendering of the emotion and intelligence of the novel into English. I suspect that this novel will appeal more to a female readership simply because the narrator is an eighteen-year-old girl, but it would be sad for anyone to miss out on a fine story by being put off by that. It is also possible that this book will resonate more fiercely in America, where the real horror of Columbine and tragically many other mass killing by students of other children have been perpetrated.

Malin Persson Giolito has an academic background in law and has worked for the European Union. She has written four novels; this is the first novel to be translated into English. Quicksand was the winner of Best Crime Novel at the Swedish Crime Writers Awards, 2016. I hope that we get more of her writing translated soon as I think Giolito could be a strong voice in European crime fiction.

Paul Burke 5/5

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito
Simon & Schuster UK 9781471160325 hbk Apr 2017


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