Rabén & Sjögren, 2008. ISBN: 9789129669251
Reviewed by Margaret Dahlström in SBR 2008:2
Lise Indahl was born in Norway but lives and works in Sweden. She is an established writer and producer of drama. This book, suitable for ten to thirteen year-olds, is her first novel.
As the title suggests, the novel is a mystery. But it is much more than the ghost story it seems at first to be, as the mysteries that unfold all have their explanations in the concrete world and involve in the end some very serious questions about social reality in contemporary Sweden.
The narrator is twelve-year-old Elvira, who has just moved with her family from Stockholm to the town of Lönnby. The rest of the family is delighted with the move, but Elvira misses her friends and her school in Stockholm.
Her difficulties in settling down are compounded by the strange things that are happening in her new home. Things disappear inexplicably, or are moved or changed: Elvira’s bed is made very neatly, day after day; sections of a jigsaw she is working on are suddenly completed; her red beanie is nowhere to be found. When Elvira accuses her brother, or tries to talk to him or her parents about what is happening, they think she’s imagining it or making it up.
One day she finds a message written in her diary, and she is outraged that anyone would open something so personal, let alone write in it. But it becomes a means of communication with the mysterious presence: Elvira writes messages in the diary, and finds answers there, usually the next day after school. The message-writer claims to be invisible, living in a shadow world, and says that if anyone finds out about this, something terrible will happen.
The author manages to build up the tension of a mystery story with suggestions of the supernatural, while at the same time preparing the reader for answers on a much more tangible level. The false leads that she introduces are fairly quickly seen to be red herrings, but they do cause a plot-thickening: as each possible explanation is dismissed, the real identity of the invisible being becomes more elusive. But the strange incidents are all connected with everyday reality – the banality of boring maths homework becomes ghostly when it has inexplicably been completed, but it remains a mystery in an exercise book. And cheese missing from the refrigerator does not suggest a conventional ghost.
As Elvira eventually learns, the mysterious presence is in fact a girl of her own age, who once lived in what is now Elvira’s family’s new home, to which she kept a key when she had to move away. She and her father are refugees from Chechnya, but their application for asylum was refused, and to avoid deportation they have gone into hiding.
The difficulties they have faced, and continue to face after their hiding-place is discovered, become the real focus of the narrative. The reader doesn’t learn their ultimate fate: the narrative ends with their case being re-considered, taking the father’s illness into account.
The trope of invisibility is often used in literary, social and political contexts for minority and disadvantaged groups in society. Here the author approaches it in a literal way, before modulating into metaphor, enabling the young reader to grasp the concept without the need for explicit explanations.
Because the treatment of asylum seekers has been so much debated in recent times and is an issue in many Western countries, the central concern of the narrative is very relevant to readers of many backgrounds. There are other aspects of the novel, too, which young readers in general would recognise. Elvira’s difficulties in settling into her new home and school (and in fact her own sense that she has disappeared, when at first her new classmates don’t seem to notice her), the ups and downs of family life and friendships, her changing interests and activities as she is growing up, are all aspects that young readers would relate to.
The characters are all seen through Elvira’s eyes, but are well-developed and convincing individuals. Indahl succeeds in presenting the different sides of both the more and the less likeable characters. Two of Elvira’s classmates, for example, are often shown as rather unpleasant, with a tendency to sneer and tease, but Elvira dismisses any suggestion that it could have been these girls who informed the police about the hidden asylum seekers. Elvira and the "invisible" girl, both central to the narrative, also have their strengths and weaknesses, and an elderly neighbour, Marta – initially feared by the children – helps in the end to save the day, to the extent that it is saved by the end of the narrative.
Clearly, then, this book can be read on several levels. Being both entertaining and informative, it would be appropriate and interesting for young readers in any society that has controversial policies and attitudes in relation to immigration and asylum.