Forum, 2010. ISBN: 9789137134918
Reviewed by Darcy Hurford in SBR 2011:1
‘A thriller about power, medicine and morality’ says the cover of Niklas Ekdal’s Kvinnan utan egenskaper, possibly in case any potential readers thought this book might be a nod to Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. This novel, recently adapted for television in Sweden, combines two main plots. One strand involves the psychiatrist My Bring, whose daughter Juni, studying at Oxford, has disappeared. Together with her foster sister, the police officer Johanna Tott, they travel to England to look for Juni. The other strand involves one of My’s patients, a schizophrenic named Nikanor Branting who is shot dead on hospital premises. At the time of his death, Branting had just finished a series of ten short stories, all of which involve castration or medical exploitation, and which point towards him having been murdered to keep something quiet. As Johanna and My investigate further, they realise that there is a link between Juni’s disappearance and Nikanor’s murder. There are number of obvious points of comparison with a certain recent and successful trilogy of novels involving a female with a reptilian tattoo. One of these is the author’s background: Niklas Ekdal, like Stieg Larsson, has a background in journalism, with both Expressen and Dagens Nyheter in his CV. Another is their way of using the thriller genre to criticise aspects of Sweden’s recent history. A major theme in Kvinnan utan egenskaper is the attitude of Swedish authorities towards eugenics in the mid-twentieth century, with the ‘feeble-minded’ being sent to institutions, subjected to sterilisation or other interventions – true examples include being the subject of experiments, such as the real-life caries induction, in which subjects were fed nothing but sweets and their rate of tooth decay monitored. Nikanor Branting, it turns out, was one of the victims. Sadly, we see little of Branting in the novel, as he dies early on, but the short stories he leaves behind indicate an intelligent and articulate character who it would have been enjoyable to read more about. There could have been less of My Bring, however; less about her comfort eating, relationship with her late ex-husband and her affair with Johanna’s husband. My’s agonising over a childhood conflict between herself and Johanna is revealed late in the novel, by which time so much else has happened that the revelation feels like an anticlimax. Looking back over the 400-odd pages of the novel, it is tempting to suggest that a more ruthless editor might have killed Juni’s trip to Uruguay. While indicating how widespread the sinister medical company Oxmed is, it does little to move the story forward, apart from making Johanna briefly wanted for murder later on (a charge which seems magically to lift at the end of the novel), so she is obliged to spend longer in Oxford. Another similarity with the Larsson books is the sheer wealth of detail. Did we really need to know, for example, what brand of pizza Lisbeth Salander ate, what it cost, and where it was bought? Or, indeed, that My and Peter drink Chateauneuf du Pape? Or that My likes Ben & Jerry’s and Mövenpick? It’s been said that thrillers are the genre that most closely reflect social change and social fears: the minutiae of the characters’ daily lives could be there to reflect readers’ aspirations, or maybe they indicate the journalist’s ambition to document daily life. The ending of this novel required some suspension of disbelief, for me at any rate: There’s a mad scientist. And the mad daughter of a scientist. Yet I was glued to it from start to finish.