Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2005.
Reviewed by Fiona Graham in SBR 2016:2
Review Section: Backlist
From the outside, Fredrik and Paula are the couple who have it all. He has a fulfilling job in local government, she is a rising star in the art world. With their two beautiful children, and the roomy old house they have just acquired on the scenic west coast, they look set for domestic bliss.
Yet both are vulnerable in their different ways, as we learn from their sketched back-stories. Fredrik’s stepfather disowned him when drunk, and his real father committed suicide in a mental institution. Brought up by a struggling single mother, Fredrik is as ambitious as he is lacking in self-esteem. He feels unworthy of the coolly beautiful Paula with her patrician background. Paula herself seems to regard her art as a poor substitute for the promising career in contemporary dance she was forced to abandon. She loves her husband and children less than she once loved her dance tutor and her own pupils. Obsessively self-disciplined, she regards running as a self-purification ritual. And her mixed-media artworks, with their sadomasochistic subject matter, suggest a troubled sexuality – to Fredrik at least.
The family’s new home turns out to have another occupant, a small but robust man who claims to live under the stairs. Although we see Kwådd only through Fredrik’s eyes, he also appears to affect Paula and, above all, their son Fabian. Determined to evict their unwelcome ‘tenant’, Fredrik tries tactic after tactic, from demanding extortionate sums in rent to setting an ill-fated bull-terrier on him. But Kwådd will not budge, and family bonds gradually erode under his malign influence. Fabian runs wild in the woods, killing squirrels. Fredrik and Paula argue constantly, and their love-life stagnates. Then, in an uncharacteristic moment of reckless lust, Fredrik has an adulterous fling with the local art gallery owner. She is on the point of revealing to Paula that she is pregnant when Kwådd murders her. Though Kwådd is the instrument of her death, Fredrik realises that the moral responsibility is his. Things continue to deteriorate to the point where family breakdown becomes inevitable.
As the story is narrated mainly from Fredrik’s point of view, the reader is not in a position to distinguish between Fredrik’s perceptions and external reality. Does the man under the stairs really exist? Five-year-old Fabian certainly thinks so. The old lady who used to live in the house speaks with affection of ‘little Karl’, who used to help her with household repairs. And the family who came after her had dealings with him as well, though whether their downfall was his fault or grew out of existing problems remains unclear. Whether Kwådd brings good or bad luck depends on the attitude the house’s occupants take towards him, and on the dynamics among them.
This is a psychological study of sexual and family relationships which relies for much of its tension on folktale imagery. Bodil, the exotically garbed gallery owner, is depicted as something of an enchantress, and Fredrik even sees her as a witch when her pregnancy threatens the stability of his family. The squat, hirsute Kwådd has something of the troll about him, and he also embodies the sexual potency that Fredrik lacks in relations with his wife. Paula, for her part, is very much the princess in the tower, cool, beautiful and unattainable.
Like Hembiträdet (The Maid) and Himmelsdalen (The Devil’s Sanctuary), this is a dark, spine-chilling tale which compels the reader to keep turning the pages. However, it has the psychological credibility lacking in the former, and a low-key subtlety which would have improved the latter. Mannen under trappan is an unsettling novel which will return to haunt the reader long after the last page has turned.