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Marie Hermanson, Hembiträdet (The Maid)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2004. ISBN: 9100104353

Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2005:1

Last year Marie Hermanson published this, her sixth novel, which, as she freely admits in a recent interview, “is a novel about characters who we cannot sympathize with.” With this admission she puts herself within range of heavy artillery, for while there is no need for readers to ”like” fictional characters, a degree of involvement in their unfolding destinies is crucial. The main character of Hembiträdet is Yvonne Gärstrand, a successful entrepreneur whose company Din Tid AB is making healthy profits out of organizing unlikely-sounding workshops for bored, corporate types. At home, Yvonne has a friendly but disengaged husband, and a son whose main interest is watching television or playing video games. Fundamentally, everything in Yvonne’s life is under control until the moment she discovers a peaceful, leafy residential area she calls “Området” (“The Area”). She takes to wandering there at the end of her day’s work; and soon she develops a voyeur-istic interest in its residents, gradually categorizing them according to various criteria. One house defies all attempts at categorization. Its garden has gone to seed and the building is nondescript, with no ornaments in the windows except an odd, green, Chinese vase. Yvonne, clearly a woman who likes either to control or classify all that she sees, is so overwhelmed by curiosity that she eventually puts a note through the door advertising her services as a cleaner. At this point she has no intent-ion of actually taking up any subsequent offer of work – merely to inform herself. However, when she is called for an interview, she finds herself defending her record as a competent cleaner to the owner of the house. Bernard Ekberg is a rather neurotic man, a bank employee, who has only recently returned to work after a long period of ill health. Before long, Yvonne has assumed the name of Nora Brick, and Nora Brick finds herself dutifully cleaning Bernard Ekberg’s house every week. These visits begin to take over Yvonne’s life, eclipsing her work and dour family life – her selfsufficient son, her sexless husband. Her actions are motivated by an extrapolated voyeurism. Bernard’s life revolves round his devotion for his wife, although she is no longer there. As Bernard grows more dependent on Yvonne, he starts to look forward to her coming, and to confide. By this point, the reader is becoming aware of an emerging “crime element”. Has Bernard murdered his wife? This uncertainty about what kind of story this is, while appealing in the opening chapters, soon creates a sense of anticipation that Hermanson’s later plot development fails to satisfy. Bernard’s confessions reveal that he has been unfaithful, this being the cause of the marital breakdown. Yvonne develops an unhealthy obsession for Bernard, and embarks on a sexual liaison with him. Before long before she has cajoled him into making a disturbing admission, namely that his wife actually went to prison for murdering Bernard’s lover! Bernard’s guilty conscience (about his earlier infidelity) is clear for all to see – yet while he readily makes love to Yvonne, at no stage does he believe that this affair will supersede his marital relationship. On one occasion Herman-son conspires to have the wife turn up – on parole – at the precise moment when Yvonne and Bernard are making love. This seems a rather contrived attempt by the author to create sus-pense. Bernard is a punctilious man, and it is inconceivable that he would have made such an elementary mistake. Hermanson does not explore what is happening in his mind at this point, and she seems to be using the episode as a device – for at this point we are presumably supposed to fear for Yvonne’s safety. Will the homicidal wife repeat her earlier crime? In the end, we find out that the wife is not the murderer at all. In fact, Bernard killed his lover – and his wife took the blame and went to prison to save his skin. Ultimately, this is revealed through Yvonne turning sleuth and exposing the cover-up. Bernard, a bland moral coward, justifies his position on the basis of his agonizing guilt. (He tells Yvonne, “Guilt is something we have to nurture...”). When Yvonne decides to stop seeing him, he reacts with dangerous vehemence and gives her a fright. A little later, Bernard murders his wife while she is out on parole. Again, it is Yvonne who stirred the pot when, during an earlier prison visit, she prompted the wife to cut off this abusive relationship. Bernard’s homicidal instincts kick in when confronted by another abandonment. Promising in the initial stages, this novel suffers from a sense of aimlessness partly caused by an illdefined use of genre. While relying on elements of the crime genre, this is by no means a true crime novel. Crucially the novel also fails to be psychologically compelling; Hermanson is correct in her assessment: the characters are unsympathetic. Bernard is not evil enough, tortured enough or interesting enough – merely pathetic. As for Yvonne, we view her increasingly as a mixed-up individual whose latent attraction for this unattractive man defies understanding – although Hermanson has provided an early flashback to clarify the origins of Yvonne’s low self-esteem (she was bullied at school). Some deeper, underlying ideas can be glimpsed at times in this novel; and there are even moments of fine writing. But in spite of all the implications of the tragic events that Hermanson describes, the reader is not moved to reflect upon these or draw any conclusions, except possibly to avoid strange-looking houses.

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