Wahlström & Widstrand, 2009. ISBN: 9789146219958
Reviewed by Marie Allen in SBR 2010:1
Karolina Ramqvist is editor-in-chief for the magazine Arena and also writes for Dagens Nyheter. She is known as a fearless and provocative voice in the media debate. The Girlfriend, her second novel, is told at a slow pace, where topical issues of people’s behaviour in modern society simmer beneath the cool, glossy surface. The novel has been awarded the monthly magazine Vi’s literature prize for 2009. The whole story pivots around Karin, a young, beautiful woman, who is waiting for her gangster boyfriend John to come home. It is the perfect gilded cage, every luxury imaginable, no expense spared. Karin plays happy homes, polishes the glass table and wipes the fridge with special tissues. Meanwhile, John is out somewhere ‘on a job’ to keep them in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Karin thinks of her life as a parallel to that of Karen and Henry Hill in the mafia film Goodfellas, which in turn is based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi. It tells the true story of Henry Hill, who testified against his former mafia friends and was entered into the FBI witness protection programme with his family. Karin does not want to give this up and does not think she could love an ordinary man. She says that she has always known that she was different, that her life was a fairy tale, far removed from other girls’ aspirations and her feminist mother’s and goody-two-shoes sisters’ idea of a ‘decent man’ and ‘good life’. She does ponder why she has fallen for a man whose occupation involves violence and crime, and when she suspects that this time he has really hurt someone it bothers her. But as he keeps the two existences very separate, so can she. For it is simple to her: ‘I know that people admire criminals, even though they say they don’t.’ It’s just like the need to get respect from people: ‘There are those who admit that they want this, and those who pretend that they don’t want it.’ The appeal to have everything and anything you want when you want it, including respect, the best tables at restaurants, and the best drugs, is far too strong to disregard. The middle-class life she was born into held no such appeal. The only people she can talk to are the WAGS of John’s brothers in crime. When the men are away, they have girly dinners with champagne and cocaine. The conversation moves from make-up, fashion and holidays, touching briefly on relationship dilemmas, and ending up with sexual habits. But even here, within the inner circle, it is an unspoken taboo to bring up the nature of their partners’ business activities. Although the pace is slow and nothing much happens, Karolina Ramqvist manages to keep the portrait of Karin intriguing. But we are not allowed a full picture, just hints at why she has chosen this and why she stays. At the end of the book we are left wondering what a potential sequel would reveal: will Karin find the effects of this life too much, like not wanting to have a baby with a man who could be dead or in prison? Will she finally get tired of the golden, but empty, cage and leave? Will the police turn up or maybe next time John never return? The book has been heralded for highlighting social problems. The main social problem at its centre is not women who fall for criminal or violent men, but rather the fact that, surrounded by the glorified, ever-present, stupefying media, women (and men) find it too easy and attractive to slide into a conscience-free virtual reality of glamour and luxury, dulled by booze and drugs. It is too easy to blame it all on not fitting in amongst ordinary people with ordinary lives and a fear of the mundane. What chance do today’s teenage girls have, weaned on a ‘cultural’ diet of MTV, ‘docusoaps’ and celebrity shows, in a society that idolises beauty, wealth and status? And the boys? Are foulmouthed rappers and ultra-violent, bloody films really the role models our next generation needs?