Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 12 October 2011



There are no punishments and no rewards, there are only consequences. – Karin Alvtegen

Karin Alvtegen is described rather blandly in Wikipedia as a “crime writer” whose “psychological thrillers are generally set in Sweden.” It’s not an entirely inaccurate description but it also does her a disservice. I think we have a much better writer here than just a crime writer. Of course there are good and bad writers engaged at every level but as I worked my way through this novel I found two names creeping into my thoughts, neither of whom would readily jump to your mind when discussing crime fiction: Harold Pinter and John Fowles, two literary giants in their own chosen fields. And the two works that came to mind were, obviously, Pinter’s play, Betrayal, and Fowles’ first novel, The Collector.

Betrayal is not the first novel by Alvtegen that I’ve been exposed to. Of the five currently available in English I’ve read and reviewed Shadow and Missing in that order – I’ve yet to tackle Guilt and Shame – and I gave them perfectly respectable reviews but I wasn’t especially hankering to read another so much so that when my little collection of review copies started to mount up I considered passing on it and moving onto weightier stuff but I’m rather glad I didn’t now because this was a different beast entirely.

For starters the ‘crime’ under the microscope here is not murder and it is rare and refreshing for a crime novelist to look at some of the other crimes if betrayal can even be classified as a full-bodied crime; certainly most European countries have decriminalised adultery. That doesn’t mean this book is without any felony – there are several including assault, invasion of privacy, defamation, illegal entry – but the word ‘crime’ itself only appears three times and even there it’s talking about how betrayal is not a crime. Betrayal was nominated for the Glass Key Award for the best Nordic crime novel in 2004 and has since become a bestseller across Europe but what this book does to good effect is use the format of the crime novel to attempt to dissect the nature of betrayal. The Collector would not be considered a crime novel but it most certainly is and if this book were marketed differently it could slip onto the contemporary fiction shelves and hold its own, but I doubt it would have been read by a fraction of the people who have read it otherwise.

Let’s look at our suspects and victims, the betrayers and the betrayed, if, indeed, they can be separated so easily.

There are two strands to this book that gradually become intertwined: in the opening two chapters we are introduced to Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrick, a stay-at-home writer; they have been married for fifteen years, live in a nice house in Stockholm and have a six-year old son, Axel. The next chapter we get to meet Jonas, a twenty-five-year-old postman, who is sitting in a private room in a hospital where his girlfriend, Anna, has been lying in a coma for two years and five months following a mysterious swimming accident. None of the couples have ever met and know nothing about each other’s existences. Things are not going well with the married couple. Jonas, on the other hand, is devoted to Anna – he even obtains permission to spend one night a week with her – but she’s not recovering and it looks like it will only be a matter of time before he loses her completely.

It’s not hard to work out the first betrayal. It’s the classic one: husband looks for a bit on the side because his wife isn’t fun anymore. Even before Eva corroborates what she suspects, it’s obvious. Eva, predictably, never sees it coming. She’s too preoccupied with her own job, running the house and taking care of their boy with super efficiency:

Always so fast. Everything finished and ready before he even managed to see that it needed to be done. Always ready to solve every problem, even those that were none of her concern, before he even had a chance to think about it. Like an impatient steam locomotive she charged ahead, trying to make everything right. But it was not possible to fix everything. The more he tried to demonstrate how distant he felt, the more zealously she made sure it wouldn’t be noticed. And with each day that passed he had grown more conscious that it really didn’t matter what he did. She didn’t need him anymore.

Maybe she never had.

He was merely something that had been hooked onto the locomotive for the journey.

Half of Henrick’s life has gone – pfft! – and the final leg is not shaping up the way he might have hoped. He’s not simply being a doom monger though. His fears are grounded in the real world. He looks at his parents’ marriage and shudders:

They sat there in Katrineholm in their house that was all paid off. Everything finished and settled. One evening after another, side by side in their two well-used TV recliners. All conversation had long since stopped. All consideration, all expectation, all respect, everything had slowly but surely died a natural death years ago from lack of nourishment. They only thing that was left was a mutual reproach for all they had missed, all that had been lost to them.

KatrineholmWhen he thinks about them he never uses the word ‘betrayal’ but he’s thinking it and the noteworthy thing is that they have both let down the other. No doubt they made plans when they were younger, talked about taking trips – Katrineholm is at the junction of two major rail routes (so easy just to jump on a train) – or they might have bought a summer cabin and yet they can’t even be bothered to get in their car and drive the hundred kilometres to Stockholm (about 62 miles) to visit their grandson on his birthday. That is the future Henrick sees for him and his wife.

When pressed by his wife he admits to having felt this way for about a year, not that he’s especially forthcoming, and the only explanation he can give for his cooling off towards her is:

We don’t have fun anymore.

Eva’s life is not exactly fun either but she has plans of her own to worry about:

What telephone plan to sign up with, which electrical company would be more advantageous, where to invest the pension money, which school was the best, which family doctor, the lowest interest on the mortgage. And they all affected her little world: what was best and most beneficial for her and her family. Endless decisions to make, and you still never knew if you had made the right ones.

One thing she is not thinking about is having an affair, but the neither is Jonas. Jonas is also not having fun. He also had expectations, had made plans. Now he only has wants:

He wanted only one thing.

Only one.

That she would wake up and touch him. Take hold of him. And afterwards she would hold him tight and tell him that he never had to be alone again. That he didn’t have to be afraid anymore.

He would never leave her.


Jonas is an odd one. Anna had been good for him though, she calmed him (even in her comatose state she still has a calming effect on him), but, following the accident, “it started again.”

It came sneaking up, lying in wait for him, at first only as a diffuse need to create symmetry and restore balance. And later, when the gravity of her injuries had become more and more obvious, the pressure to perform the complicated rituals had intensified to an inescapable compulsion. The only way to neutralise the threat was to give in. If he didn’t obey the impulses properly, something horrible would happen. What, he didn’t know, only that the fear and pain grew intolerable if he tried to fight back.

Jonas has Obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD). The concept of neutralisation is a common one with sufferers although it takes many forms. They may, for instance, respond by thinking “good thoughts”, asking for reassurance from others or washing their hands:

When the neutralising strategy reduces the anxiety level of the individual it is reinforcing: it is more likely to be repeated in the future. The act is repeated so often that it becomes an obsession or compulsion. When the neutralising strategy seems effective it confirms the idea that the intrusive thought was dangerous or morally reprehensible and in need of elimination. This is the behavioural aspect of the disorder. – Keiron Walsh, ‘Obsessive Compulsive Disorder’, A-Level Psychology

Jonas is a hand washer but he also believes that touching things again can neutralise things:

He looked at the door handle that he had just touched. Damn it. He touched it again to neutralise it, but that didn’t help.

Jonas is also a betrayer. He was not unfaithful to Anna, no, he betrayed his mother. He was thirteen years when it started:

Just tell her I have to work late tonight. Damn it, Jonas, you know that this woman . . . well, shit, she gives a hell of a good ride.

Thirteen years old and his father’s loyal conspirator. The truth, whatever and wherever it was, had to be kept secret from his mother at all costs.

To protect her.

Year in and year out.

In time, as is always the case, the mother finds out and she rightly recognises that her husband is not alone is his duplicity. She never speaks to her son from that day on until his eighteenth birthday:

Nine words his mother had said to him after the betrayal was revealed. Nine words.


I don’t want you to live here anymore.

We don’t learn much about Anna. She’s older than Jonas, twelve years older, an artist who had a studio in the same building where Jonas lived after leaving home. Her parents died in a car crash when she was fourteen. She and Jonas were only together for a year before the accident, on the very day he worked up the courage to propose to her, and he’s never left her since. He’s supported the nursing staff by massaging her legs and doing all sorts of minor tasks in his own OCD way trying to neutralise what has happened to her, “[t]rying to make everything all right.” Just for the record Anna is also a betrayer but we don’t learn in what way for quite a while so just hold that thought. Of course if Jonas is trying to make it all right does that mean he was in some way responsible? Is it guilt that’s keeping him here rather than love? Nothing is ever that simple. How many of us feel our emotions one at a time?

What is the proper response to betrayal? Or even the natural response? Jonas’ mother shuns her son but, for many, there will be the often kneejerk response to pay the person back: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and infidelity for infidelity. So they go out and screw the guy’s best friend or the first person they meet in a bar. And that’s what happens here. Not the best friend, the bar. When Eva finds out exactly what (or, to be more precise, who) her husband has been doing she goes out, picks up a guy in a bar, goes back to his flat and lets him have his way with her.

And that is how the two storylines come together because the guy just happens to be Jonas. Yes, Jonas, loyal Jonas, who has sat beside his ailing girlfriend for two years and five months. So, what the hell is Jonas doing in a bar? The same reason: he’s been betrayed:

For the first time in two years and five months he was going to spend the evening somewhere else besides Karolinska Hospital. His anger at Anna’s betrayal would not let him go, and by God he would show her. She could lie there all alone and wonder where he was. Tomorrow he would tell her that he had been at the pub having a good time. Then she’d regret it, realise that she could actually lose him.

Karolinska Hospital

Okay, okay, okay. So, has she woken up and told him she was unfaithful? No. Has he encountered someone from her past who has knowledge of some dalliance? No, not that either. Nothing has changed apart from a meeting with the psychologist:

I’m here to help you, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Anna is dying and you must accept that. And you must accept that it’s not your fault, that you did the best you could. No one can ask any more of a person.

For some reason this sends Jonas over the edge. He becomes furious with the psychologist. She assumes it is because he refuses to accept the inevitable but that’s not it:

Something burst inside him. He turned his head and looked at Anna.

She betrayed him. She lay there so innocent in her unconsciousness, but she had apparently not forgotten how to betray him. Once again she intended to leave him, alone. After all he had done for her.

Damn it.

He couldn’t trust her even now. Even now she wouldn’t do as he wished.

Things could have gone worse than they do. At least Eva has the sense to give a false name and so when Jonas wakes up in the morning all he knows is that he has slept with a woman called ‘Linda’ and nothing more. And, in the real world, that’s probably where the two strands would have headed off in their own directions and never met again. But that’s not what happens here.

Now anyone who has read a goodly number of Ruth Rendells will not be overly surprised by how the plot pans out and the last two-thirds of the book don’t hold any tremendous surprises but what kept my interest is that none of the protagonists are any less than fully-fledged characters, not a fleck of cardboard anywhere in sight. Everyone behaves in a believable way based on what they know or – more importantly – what they surmise: not all clues lead to the evidence one might expect. Betrayals of all kinds are explored, both real and imaginary and don’t jump to the conclusion that it’s Jonas that gets it wrong; that would be too easy – yes, blame the crazy guy – because they’re all inside emotional straightjackets. Let me illustrate:

Jonas likes to count things – pages, steps, distances – but there is an instance where all three main players make the same observation. With Jonas, it’s nine words (“I don’t want you to live here anymore”), Eva, three (“I don’t know”) and Henrick, four (“What do you want?”). I’m a little OCD – how many times have you heard someone say that? Well, all of these are. Did you notice the use of the word ‘anymore’ in the quotes by the way? Another way in which the characters are linked. And here’s another way: there are three chapters in the book where we get to see the events in the previous chapter through the eyes of the other party involved. Chapter one is from Eva’s perspective and in the second chapter we get to see the whole scene from her husband’s perspective. I’ve only seen this done once before and that was in John Fowles’ first novel, The Collector, where the first half of the book tells the story from the man’s point of view and then we get the whole thing again from the woman’s, the only difference is that there’s then a wee coda and we find out what happens.

Technique is something that I would usually point the finger at. If I’ve noticed it then it’s been done in a ham-fisted way. American crime shows where everything needs to get wrapped up neatly in 43 minutes are a perfect example; if someone coughs you know it’s a clue. That’s an example of plot done badly. An example of plot done well is the Pinter play which, if you haven’t seen it, runs backwards, beginning at the end of an affair and showing scenes from the relationship going back to the first meeting. Impossible to disguise so why try? And that’s what I liked about this book: she doesn’t hide her technique but because it’s unusual and atypical; it makes us think about why she’s chosen this particular approach.

I was also pleased (although ‘pleased’ is probably not the right word) to see that this book is, as I suspected, a personal insight into the nature of betrayal but then I imagine there are few of us who have not let down someone in the past or been disappointed ourselves. On her website Alvtegen writes:

In Sweden, a lot of marriages in my generation nowadays end with a divorce. I started to wonder about why so many of these divorces become so destructive. People I know and always looked upon as sensible and wise, who lived together for many years and have children together, suddenly started to behave like maniacs. As if they were each other’s worst enemies.

Inside our human brains we have something called the Limbic system. It is one of the oldest parts of our brain and it controls all our primary needs and we share it with the rest of the mammals on earth. But the human brain continued to evolve, and the evolution gifted us with an unique intelligence that expected us to separate from the rest of the animals. But in critical situations, when we get scared or feeling threatened, the Limbic system takes over and in an attempt to defend ourselves we react and behave exactly as the animals we once were. I am convinced that frightened people (just like animals) can be very dangerous.

Maybe our biggest fear of all is being abandoned and rejected. And if you add that fear with the threat of losing your entire existence, everything that you are used to, I venture to say that most people become very scared.

Five years ago I went through a divorce myself. Although "Betrayal" is not a personal documentary I did use my own experiences of the emotional turbulence I went through. The paradoxical benefit of a personal disaster of that magnitude is that it helped me discover some of my innermost fears. Without that experience I could not have written Betrayal.

The book is not perfect – and I’m not talking here about whether it’s a perfect thriller or whatever – for example, I was appalled at the ease one of the characters obtains information from a government source – no it’s not Jonas looking for ‘Linda’ – because I’ve worked in the civil service and we told no one anything. In Sweden though there is something called the Principle of Public Access which was the first ever piece of freedom of information legislation in the modern sense; it dates back to 1766 and that’s not a typo. Just what that allows individuals to obtain over the counter I have no idea but no one likes it when a detective in a novel has the answers handed to him on a plate. One of the reviewers on Goodreads said that he spotted “one or two unfortunate clichés along the way” and, if by that he meant that some of the characters behaved in predictable ways then I don’t see that so much as a fault as her being accurate; I don’t think that people do react to betrayal in more than a handful of ways.

Probably the main ‘problem’ most people will have with the book is that you know it’s not going to have a happy ending. There are several ways she could have gone badly at the end and all of them would have worked. What she opted for is probably one of the less believable ones but as an exploration of the nature of betrayal I think it was a fitting ending, maybe even a little Chekhovian. In fact if the whole book was set in period costume it would work, if you could figure a way around the need for e-mails, but it’s perfectly doable.

This is an intelligent, well-written novel by anyone’s standards. The American production company, Glasshouse Pictures, has acquired the film rights to Betrayal. I have no doubt they will be able to turn it into an engrossing and entertaining screenplay but I suspect what will be lost in the translation is the degree of insight into the characters which, even though she uses the third person throughout, Alvtegen still manages to convey.

You can preview the book here.


ka_05Karin Alvtegen-Lundberg was born on June 8th, 1965 in Huskvarna, Sweden. In addition to writing novels – Missing is her fifth – she has also worked as a writer for television having written episodes of the Swedish soap operas Rederiet and Tre kronor. She also wrote the film script to the 2004 film Hotet and has worked in the art department on several other films. Translation rights have been sold to 30 countries and each novel has sold several hundred thousands of copies.

Alvtegen has received a number of literary awards, including The Glass Key for Best Nordic Crime Novel, the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award, the Danish Academy of Crime Writer's Palle Rosenkrantz Award for Best Foreign Crime Novel of the Year. She has also been nominated for two of the most prestigious crime novel's awards in the world: The CWA International Dagger, for Shadow, and The Edgar Allan Poe Award, for Missing.

She is grandniece of the children's novelist Astrid Lindgren, best remembered for writing the Pippi Longstocking books.


Man of la Book said...

Wow, what a review. Very interesting. I've read several translated crime novels and they were all good. I'll certainly put this one on the list.

They did drink a ton of coffee in this book as well. It seems that every crime novel I read that is written by a Norse author that's all they drink.

Jim Murdoch said...

There are twenty occurrences of the word ‘coffee’ in Betrayal, Man of la Book, not too many I don’t think in our caffeine-dependent world. As far as the translation goes the problem always is until there is a second English translation we have nothing to compare it to bar the original language. A while ago I compared two English translations of Solzhenitsyn and the differences were remarkable. I had assumed that the aim was to get close to transliteration but, no, one of the translators had basically rewritten the book in English. You can see this in Beckett too, who did much of his own translating; he doesn’t translate, he rewrites, which is fine for him to do because it’s his book but I have mixed feelings about how much leeway I’d allow another person with my writing.

Dave King said...

On past form it would seem that I have a weakness for Scandinavian literature of this ilk, plus it strikes me as a fascinating conceit Alvtegen has devised, so it's going on my wish list and I think it very likely that I shall buy it eventually - if no one gives it to me!

Jim Murdoch said...

I think I regard Alvtegen as a bit of a guilty pleasure, Dave. I'd happily read another one but I'd feel a bit guilty that I wasn't reading Fowles or Pinter.

s said...

just read the book..fantastic review

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for leaving that comment, s. It's always nice to hear that I'm doing a respectable job with these reviews.

Ping services