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Kjell Westö, Lang

Harvill,  2005. ISBN: 1843431483

Reviewed by Eric Dickens in SBR 2005:2

Translated by Ebba Segerberg

Westö’s latest oeuvre is a classic psychological thriller set in the Finnish capital, Helsingfors. We already know from the first few pages that Lang, a TV show compère, is in big trouble. There is talk of a body and a shovel. In the end we find out everything. But the intervening 180 pages are well paced, with a small number of flashbacks and interspersed episodes. Westö keeps up the tension about who dies, why, and crucially, the complex psychological motives and background to the crime. This is not a Maigret, more one of Simenon’s studies in psychology. In FinlandSwedish terms, the book has echoes of older nonthriller works by, for instance, Christer Kihlman in its description of destructive relationships. There is a classic love-triangle involving Lang, the rather suave if curiously uncertain, Swedish-speaking protagonist, at the peak of his career; then Sarita, a Finnish-speaking woman, whose background is more provincial, less clear; and finally her former husband, Marko, who remains rather thinly portrayed. Minor characters include Sarita’s young son and Lang’s once beautiful sister, now confined to a mental home and with whom the narrator, Kjell Westö’s alter ego, Konrad Wendell, used to be in love. The narrator always tries to understand, something characteristic for Westö’s novels, though he has always been jealous of Lang. The city of Helsingfors plays an important, if subliminal role for the atmosphere of the novel. Westö is chiefly an urban writer and many streets and several districts feature. It is pleasing to see, maybe for the first time in an English translation, that the streets of the Finnish capital are consistently given their Swedish names – Helsingfors is, after all, officially bilingual, although only around 5% of the inhabitants nowadays have Swedish as their mother tongue. And nearly every one of them can speak fluent Finnish, the language of the majority, something which is not always the case in those dwindling provincial towns in Finland where Swedish still dominates. Class is also in evidence. Sarita lives in a flat in the predominantly Finnish-speaking working-class district of Berghäll (better known by its Finnish name Kallio, even amongst Swedish speakers), while Lang lives in an apartment much closer to the city centre. By consulting a map of the city, the geography is revealed. While this may not be essential in order to follow the plot, it does help with the subtleties of background. One typically Finland-Swedish feature is a mention of the archipelago to the south of Helsinki proper. This was once a completely Finland-Swedish area, which is why much Finland-Swedish literature contains references to sea and skerries. The translation is competent and smooth, and will, it is to be hoped, presage a tradition where translators of European languages from both sides of the Atlantic will be accepted in both North America and Britain. One small question is why this particular novel was chosen, when perhaps Westö’s earlier The Perils of Being a Skrake (reviewed in SBR 2003:2 and on pages 24-25 of SBR Supplement 2005: Contemporary Finland-Swedish Fiction) would perhaps have been a more logical choice. Henning Mankell, Peter Høeg and one or two other Scandinavian authors have no doubt caused British publishers to look out more for thrillers and detective novels, rather than complex family stories involving the history of the countries in the north. I do hope such a tendency can be counterbalanced with novels that give deeper insights into source cultures.

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