Wahlström & Widstrand, 2015.
Reviewed by Darcy Hurford in SBR 2016:1
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
On the surface, this is a simple novel. Even the chapters are short – enough to make you think, ‘Oh, I’ll just read the next one’, until you’ve read the whole book. The setting is everyday, almost sitcom banal, namely MegaLivs store in small-town Sweden. The main character, Roland, who has worked at MegaLivs as a security guard for some twenty years, is a rather beige, melancholy middle-aged anti-hero whose thoughts and opinions fill much of this novel. At a staff meeting, discussing ways to tackle the persistent issue of shoplifting, Roland flippantly suggests the store deal with the problem by making culprits wear a sign saying ‘I am a thief’. To his surprise, his suggestion is taken up. Soon after, a teenager is caught stealing a computer game, and when given the choice between a police caution and wearing the sign, chooses the latter. Cue the reactions of members of the public, cue social media, and a simple story becomes complicated.
Jonas Karlsson has several strings to his bow. Also an actor, he has appeared in films and theatre and on television, and has written dramas. His career as an author began in 2007 with the short story collection Det andra målet (‘The Second Goal’). This was followed by two more short story collections and a novel. Jag är en tjuv was first published chapter by chapter in the broadsheet Dagens Nyheter over the summer of 2015.
Roland’s home life is quietly unhappy. He is divorced (his wife ran off with a drama teacher), and no longer really enjoys spending time with the rest of the family (his brother is more successful than him). Most of the action takes place at the store, however. The cast includes Erik, the store manager who insists on friendliness – staff meetings where even the most passive-aggressive remark ends with ‘thanks’ – and that the thief sign must stay. There is Roland’s ally Lena, obsessed with risk statistics and potential hazards, and Jan-Åke, perpetually on the shop floor offering advice despite not actually being employed there, as well as bickering fruit and vegetable staff and a steady flow of teenage shoplifters. The one overriding image that comes through, however, is that of Roland sitting in his office, smoking a crafty cigarette, and worrying about the thief sign; the story is mainly told through his thoughts.
The story develops quite slowly, and takes a more dramatic turn halfway through, when Roland is faced with a dilemma. He considers it, turns it over in his mind, and almost – almost – appears ready to act on it, yet the idea fizzles out. By the end of the novel, he is back where he started. A less imaginative storyteller might have let Roland take the leap into crime, or at least have written a happy ending involving a romance between him and Lena. What Karlsson instead gives us is something more plausible that still leaves the reader thinking.