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Anne Swärd, Kvicksand (Quicksand)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2006. ISBN: 9789146214403

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2007:2


Anne Swärd’s second novel is as disorientating as the soft-focus, disembodied woman’s head on the front cover. It is a disturbing account of three people from a family blown apart, trying after 20 years to find each other (or perhaps avoid doing so). Glimpses of their history emerge jerkily through flashbacks and memories, seen through the eyes of three narrators: the son Adam, the mother Kaj, and Azra, a girl who has been the partner and victim of René, Kaj’s stepson and Adam’s stepbrother.

The setting is Copenhagen, the year 2035. It is an urban society similar enough to our own – the currency is still the euro, there are department stores and bakers’ shops, taxis and trains – for the strange developments that have changed the lives of the city’s population to feel deeply unsettling. A large underclass is dependent on subsidized state "restaurants" for their main meals, and on public baths for hygiene. Many basic items are out of stock in the shops, and meat is an extreme rarity. There is constant building work: the authorities are mysteriously building, drilling and tunnelling, so the city map is forever changing.

Adam lives on the breadline, working as an unlicensed taxi driver. His boss is the unsavoury, exploitative Krespen, who runs a fleet of cars and keeps vicious dogs chained behind a shack where he allows Adam to live. Adam thinks back to his childhood: his father was a Polish immigrant and his mother came from Sweden in 1999, giving birth to Adam on the eve of the new millennium, in a snowdrift. His parents worked very hard running a restaurant, which nonetheless failed to prosper. René showed no aptitude for the business, while Adam loved the smells and tastes of the kitchen, and his stepfather teaching him culinary skills. Then, on Adam’s fifteenth birthday, his parents went out to celebrate the New Year and simply never came back. He subsequently became separated from René, too, and has been looking for them ever since.

What Adam finds instead is a young boy and his father standing in the underground all day, selling apples. He is fascinated by them, and appalled that the father leaves the boy alone while selling himself to men in the adjacent public toilet. By some tacit if not friendly agreement, they move into his shack with him, so he is able to mind the boy Nico between his shifts. Meanwhile, a girl called Azra leaves a white rabbit in a cage in his taxi; he is nonplussed, but Nico is pleased to have a pet. Then Krespen sacks Adam and evicts him from his shack when he refuses to throw out Nico and Jesper, so Adam steals Krespen’s taxi, has it cheaply resprayed and turns self-employed.

Azra, the girl who abandoned the rabbit, then assumes the narrator’s role. She is living in poverty in part of her father’s mansion; he has died in sinister circumstances, never explained. When Adam goes to return her rabbit, Azra invites the homeless trio to live with her. She works as a cleaner at a government archive, where she is not encouraged to ask questions, especially when a colleague simply vanishes. While Adam is eager to contact René, Azra is desperate for him to stay away, fearing his aggression and vengeance: her relationship with René ended badly when she aborted his baby. He knows where she is, and sometimes telephones. On one occasion, Adam actually speaks to his long-lost brother, but they never meet. The tension remains unresolved, as so much else in this eerie novel.

The last third of the story is narrated by Kaj, Adam’s mother. We learn about the intense relationship between her and her husband Czes, and how Czes came to die that night and Kaj could not face going back to her sons. She has been living in Berlin, working in a Vietnamese restaurant. Now she wants to see her sons, and has returned to Copenhagen, staying in a luxurious hotel she cannot afford. She discovers Adam’s address and goes there, but sees only a young woman and child playing in the garden. Seeking solace in a department store, she feels the vibrations that have troubled her since reaching the city intensifying dramatically. An announcement tells customers that the vast warren of subterranean tunnels is collapsing, and they must evacuate the store. Kaj, a born survivor hitherto, realizes they are being herded towards the danger…

Anne Swärd works assured authorial magic to weld these glimpses of a world parallel to our own into a compelling whole, maintaining an underlying sense of menace, and concluding on this abruptly shocking note. Like her first novel, this book won critical acclaim in Sweden. Quicksand is a dark and perturbing dystopian vision that certainly lives up to its treacherously shifting title.

Sarah Death


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