If ever there was a book that shows that the Best Swedish Crime Novel award needs to be closely followed, QUICKSAND is it. Scandinoir remains one of the big things in worldwide crime fiction, but, as you'd expect, there can sometimes be a little sameness to the sub genre. Which is not intended as criticism, there's only so many subject matters, styles and approaches available when you're writing psychological thrillers or crime fiction. QUICKSAND, on the other hand, has taken an unusual and different approach to a very difficult subject, handling that undertaking with considerable aplomb.
The novel is narrated by teenager Maja Norberg, who is standing trial for a high school shooting in which her best friend, several other students, a teacher and her boyfriend and fellow shooter, Sebastian, were killed. She's been in jail for nine months and seems surprisingly calm and sanguine about the possible outcome. Maja is a most unlikely killer, not because she comes from a privileged and wealthy background, but as she seems to be searching for answers herself.
The storyline switches between past and present seamlessly, always within Maja's viewpoint, going back to when she first met Sebastian, their growing romantic and sexual connection, and simultaneous relationships with her family, his father and her friends. Author Malin Persson Giolito hasn't flinched from making this character a difficult girl to connect with. She's a teenager with attitude and adolescent angst aplenty, contemptuous, judgemental, more often than not frustratingly annoying. Which makes this a discomfortingly realistic portrayal. A young girl beset with doubts and complex emotions, looking down on her parents, her teachers, her surroundings and society in general, reserving any real emotion and affection - not for the boyfriend she can't break away from - but for her baby sister and grandparents.
As the story progresses much about Sebastian and his own background becomes clearer, as does Maja's own involvement. Both of these teenagers have had unexpected difficulties to cope with - subtle and perhaps more "first world" than any problems associated normally with poverty and disadvantage, but nonetheless, there's something bubbling away under the surface of these seemingly perfect lives that isn't right and not good. There's much being said here about that idea of wealth and privilege compensating for bad parenting, unreasonable expectation and disaffection. As you'd expect, as more is revealed, the mental state of, and relationship between, Sebastian and Maja becomes more erratic, controlling and toxic.
But was it toxic enough for her to join him in his murderous plan? Did she know what Sebastian did on that final morning, was she an active participant? Did she incite or did she somehow get caught up in the madness herself? There's plenty of proof to say who shot who in that final scene in the classroom, but not necessarily why or even how. Even Maja is struggling for understanding, whilst in solitary confinement, in consultations with her lawyers and in a courtroom.
QUICKSAND is very clever in the way that it pulls readers in and repulses at the same time. It gives you licence to really dislike the central character, and the freedom to empathise, sympathise and change your mind all at the same time. Everyone is incredibly real - from parents right to the teenagers themselves. And because of that everyone is flawed, and the things that people do allowed to stun, confront, bemuse and annoy. It's finally a lesson in what you see is not always what you get, and right up until the judgement is read in court you'll be unsure how the rest of Maja's life is going to pan out.