Review of "Broken," by Karin Fossum

(Courtesy Of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt - Courtesy Of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
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By Richard Lipez
Tuesday, August 17, 2010


By Karin Fossum

Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 265 pp. $25

In this haunting psychological suspense novel, the acclaimed Norwegian crime novelist Karin Fossum performs a stunt that other mystery writers are sure to get a kick out of. The "I" in alternating chapters -- apparently Fossum herself -- doesn't just have her main character rattling around inside her head for the year it takes to write "Broken." Alvar Eide, an eccentric loner who works in an art gallery, shows up on Fossum's doorstep and pleads with her to treat him sensitively. Trying to buck him up, Fossum promises to do so. Just "as long as," she warns Alvar, "you don't wish for a happy ending."

Fossum is having some fun here with the old saw that, during the writing of a book, a novelist's characters will take on lives of their own and lead the author through the narrative to a satisfactory conclusion. On a good day, there's some truth to this. But just as often characters tell their creators, Sorry, Bud, you're going to have to figure this out on your own. The "I" in "Broken" wrestles so anxiously with her characters, is so determined to understand them and make them and their stories plausible and compelling, that on a couple of his visits Alvar chastises the author for her apparent dependence on wine and pills.

The most involving sections of "Broken," at any rate, are the third-person chapters in which the author's narrative skills are on dazzling display, minus the buttinski "I." Alvar is a sad case, hard for the reader to warm up to. He's socially inept, incapable of intimacy and neurotically weak-willed. Yet Fossum gets inside Alvar's head with such sympathetic exactitude that when a manipulative female heroin addict shows up in his life and begins unleashing his emotions even as she drains his bank account, good-hearted readers will want to befriend Alvar, too. You want to help him develop some backbone -- or even just survive.

Alvar is a mess, but a fascinating mess. At one point, he starts obsessing about death. He was not "scared of dying," Fossum tells us. "But on one occasion he had articulated the following thought to himself: The last thing you lose is your hearing. So it was possible that he could be lying in a bed and someone would be sitting by his side checking that his breathing and heartbeat had ceased, someone who would then say: He's gone. That he might, in fact, lie there for several seconds knowing that he had just died. What would that be like?"

Fossum is best known for her Inspector Sejer series, superb police procedurals in the classic mold. In one sense, "Broken" isn't even a mystery. The only crime committed comes late in the story; it's almost anti-climactic. Yet Fossum builds suspense almost entirely through the ongoing collision of Alvar -- who considers himself emotionally dead and then discovers that in fact he is emotionally needy -- and young Lindys, a damaged wraith of a girl who constantly tests him with her crude demands. Every day, she dares him to show her the generosity and tenderness she's never known. She steals his money and his keys. She moves in on his relationship with his cat. Alvar feels that "she spreads like a disease, she grows like a tumor, she makes me want to scream."

You know that all this is bound to end badly -- for Alvar, for Lindys, maybe even for the author. When "I" wonders if suicide might be the outcome for Alvar, she recalls her own brush with self-obliteration. She methodically rigged up her car, planning to asphyxiate herself. It was only a chance phone call from a friend that kept her from going through with the suicide. It's the powerful memory of the bright resonance of the next morning, when she surprised herself by waking up alive, that helps "I" determine to keep Alvar going.

The "broken" of the title refers to a painting of a collapsed bridge that Alvar had yearned to buy before Lindys barged in and ran through nearly all his money. It's an obvious but apt metaphor for the kinds of injured lives that Karin Fossum evokes so brilliantly in her Inspector Sejer mysteries and now in this odd, memorable book.

Lipez writes the Don Strachey PI novels under the name Richard Stevenson. The new one, "Cockeyed," will be published in September.

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