“Quicksand,” a remarkable new novel from Sweden, takes us deep into the life of Maja Norburg, who is 18, blessed with beauty, brains and rich parents — and on trial for mass murder.
The novel, arriving here after success in Europe, in some ways recalls “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo ,” but because Maja narrates her own story, we come to know her more intimately than we do Lisbeth Salander. What we don’t know is whether the story will end with Maja going to prison.
The book opens with Maja in court, charged with carrying out several murders with her lover, Sebastian Fagerman, the handsome and charismatic but unstable son of the richest man in Sweden. They are said to have killed Sebastian’s father in his home and then moved on to their school to kill a teacher and several of their classmates. The outburst of violence ends with Maja fatally shooting Sebastian — possibly in self-defense — and left to face justice alone. Her high-priced lawyer expresses optimism that the reader may find difficult to share.
As the prosecution presents its case, Maja thinks disdainfully about almost everyone. She scorns the prosecutor for her “tacky earrings . . . uneven bangs and eyebrows that look like they were drawn on with a ballpoint pen.” She says the teacher who was shot to death “thought rock concerts could save the world from war, famine and disease.” Her own mother “has always been inexplicably clueless,” and her best friend, Amanda, another victim, is mocked for being superficial: “When she watched YouTube videos about the world’s fattest man leaving his house for the first time in thirty years she would say ‘Shh! Not now! I’m watching the news.’ ” Readers deficient in the milk of human kindness may warm to tart-tongued Maja.
The story alternates between courtroom scenes and Maja’s richly detailed memories. She recalls losing her virginity at 15 to a boy who smoked hash, played bass and wrote poetry. But her great love is Sebastian, who gives the wildest parties, uses the coolest drugs and jets off to New York and Paris for weekends. Soon after they meet, she joins him for a voyage to Capri on his father’s yacht. The author, Malin Persson Giolito, carries us deep into the lives of these star-crossed lovers and the decadent society that shaped them. Sebastian, whose mother was banished years earlier and whose truly nasty father despised him, was doomed from the start.
Once Sebastian is gone, Maja is left loving no one except her 5-year-old sister, whom she hasn’t seen since she was sent to jail to await trial. Except for missing her sister, Maja doesn’t mind jail, because it’s quiet and private and she’s safe from all the people whom newspaper headlines have taught to hate her.
Giolito, who practiced law before she turned to fiction, writes with exceptional skill. She seems to know everything about Stockholm’s rich and the ways of teenage girls. Her story examines the corrosive effects of vast wealth. Even the novel’s title, “Quicksand,” suggests a world that will suck in, swallow and devour the unwary.
Giolito always shows sympathy for Maja, who is variously brave, confused, self-destructive and beset by problems she doesn’t understand: “Why did Sebastian choose me? There had to be a reason! Why did he come to me at the hotel that night? Why did he track me down in Nice? Why did he stay? Why did he try to kill himself when I broke up with him?” Of course, after he failed to kill himself she went back to him, to try to save him, and disaster followed.
It’s a long novel, perhaps a little too long, but always smart and engrossing. We race along to learn whether Maja’s lawyer can save her. Or whether, in fact, prison may be where she belongs. Giolito keeps us guessing a long time and the outcome, when it arrives, is just as it should be.
Patrick Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post.
By Malin Persson Giolito
Translated from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles
Other Press. 498 pp. $25.95