Afterthoughts: Shadow by Karin Alvtegen

In a nutshell: A good novel with a well-developed storyline. It takes a while to get going but when it does the surprises and plot-twists comes thick and fast. Some characters have been much better realised than others, but overall an accomplished work from a very competent writer. Recommended, but ‘buyer beware’ if you’re not a reasonably patient reader!

Well my first foray into the Swedish crime novel genre has come to a close and it’s time to pass on my afterthoughts on the new English translation of Karin Alvtegen’s novel Shadow. I’ve already spoken to some degree about the book and its author in my ‘forethoughts’, so to avoid repeating myself I’ll send you over to that post. However I will offer a brief summary (minimal spoilers of course), just to establish the basic plot:

The novel begins with a brief flashback to 1975 when a boy is discovered abandoned at an amusement park with a brief note asking for him to be looked after. Fast forward to the present day and the plot begins to form around the death of an old woman – Gerda Persson, who turns out to be the former housekeeper of Ragnerfeldt family, the head of whom is the highly respected Nobel Laureate Axel Ragnerfeldt. With Gerda’s passing comes contact with the family by a social worker, and so begins a journey into a family whose life is full of infidelity, dark secrets and a ‘cart load’ of writer’s block (I’m being serious about the writer’s block :o)).

On to my ‘afterthoughts’ and I’ll start by saying that I quite liked this novel. Not being enamoured by or indeed overly familiar with the ‘crime novel’ genre I didn’t know what to expect, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised. In fact I wouldn’t even class Shadow simply as a cut and dry crime novel. There is enough depth to some of the characters, especially when it comes to the frequent explorations of their ‘inner-selves’, for Shadow to be able to dip a figurative toe into the category of literary fiction as well.

Of the overall plot it’s true to say that Alvtegen really does like to keep her cards close to her chest, and she does so for the greater part of the novel. This is no bad thing, it definitely builds suspense, keeps you reading, and sets the way open for a very climatic ending. However such a practice can, and does to a small degree, lead to a touch of drudgery creeping its way into the proceedings. This is not to say that the story is dull and boring by any stretch of the imagination. Alvetegen seems to counter any significant chance of boredom setting in, by engaging the reader with multiple story threads, set in both the present and the past, which intertwine with one another as the story progresses, keeping things reasonably lively and somewhat thought-provoking throughout. Ultimately though it doesn’t take away from the fact that Shadow is to be classed as a ‘slow burner’, which is not ideal for those who like their novels to combust with action from the outset, and remain that way until the final page is turned.

With the plot not dropping too many bombshells early on, character establishment and development is definitely what drives the novel forward during its formative stages, and it’s clear that Alvtegen enjoys building depth into her characters. In Shadow she achieves this better with some characters than she does with others, and her most accomplished character for me, is undoubtedly the patriarch of the Ragnerfeldt family, the afore-mentioned Axel. A stroke leaves him in an almost total vegetative state. Unable to speak or function for himself, Axel’s only form of communication is to wiggle one of his little fingers. As one can imagine this would be hugely upsetting for the man and the way in which Alvtegen portrays Axel’s frustration at this total inability, especially on the back of achieving such a successful and prestigious career, is nothing short of sublime, and it makes for compelling reading. As an example:

“Trapped in a body he couldn’t move, but whose sensations of pain were intact. After hours in the same position the pain was unbearable. And yet he couldn’t ask for help. Then his only salvation was to escape into the past.”

Powerful stuff wouldn’t you agree? And it’s this ‘escaping into the past’ that Alvtegen uses to get around the problem of trying to portray dynamism and strength in a character who’s been reduced to nothing more than a moribund ‘finger waggler’. Axel spends much of his time in Shadow in retrospective flashback, but it’s during the period that was most powerful for him, and it’s the same period that’s also central to the novel’s evolving plot. Very clever stuff from Alvtegen!

I could go on about the novel’s other well-developed characters, such as Jan-Erik, the adulteress son of the great Axel, who makes his living lecturing off the back of his father’s success, or Axel’s literary ‘rival’ Torgny, but I think I’d start giving away too much. However I would like to spend the briefest of moments dwelling on one of the characters of Shadow whom I didn’t think was as well-developed as I hoped he would have been.

The character in question is the abandoned child who opens the novel and I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that he makes a return in his adult form (it’s kind of obvious that he would have done). He’s known as Kristoffer and I had hoped his enigmatic introduction at the start would have led him to being one of Shadow’s most interesting characters, but sadly for me he wasn’t! Sure Alvtegen manages to achieve some success with portraying Kristoffer’s anxiety as a foundling with an uncertain past (and perhaps better success at ‘painting’ his battle against former alcoholism), but generally for me Kristoffer comes across as flat, largely under-developed and somewhat pointless, even though he is an integral part of the story. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, because in actuality Kristoffer’s character development is more than adequate for most novels. However, when one has the pleasure of sharing such sublime empathy with a character as well developed as Axel, any interaction with Kristoffer seems second-rate.

I think then that I’ve probably said all I can about Shadow without giving too much away. It’s definitely a novel that’s worth reading, and it’s one, if you can stick with its initial slow pace, that will easily keep you reading until the end. I’m delighted to have experienced Alvtegen’s ability as a novelist. She’s certainly accomplished and she can tell a good story, even when that story is in its translated form (which is a homage to the competence of its English translator, McKinley Burnett).

Rating: ★★★½☆

Book Details
Publisher: Canongate Books
Published: 19 Feb 2009
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320 pages
ISBN: 9781847671707

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).

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