Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2013:2
Review Section: Fiction: The Present
The butterfly effect of the title is the scientific theory that a single occurrence, no matter how tiny, can change the course of the universe forever. Alvtegen’s novel begins with a media report of a fatal accident: a car has ploughed into an intercity train at a level crossing just north of Stockholm, derailing it and killing 11 passengers. Not revealing how, or even if, this relates to the crash, the author then takes us back five months and introduces three main protagonists, who alternate as first-person narrators. Bodil, for decades the trampled half of a loveless marriage to a cleverly manipulative man, has been diagnosed at the age of 55 with a terminal degenerative disease which will slowly rob her of the ability to walk, talk and swallow. It is many years since she had any proper relationship with her high-achieving, careerist daughter Viktoria, who has now started to dwell on biological clocks and to experience debilitating achievement anxiety, driving her into therapy.
Elsewhere in Stockholm, successful architect and family man Andreas gets caught up in an armed robbery when he is helping a colleague buy a present at a jeweller’s. His response to having a gun held to his head triggers what must surely be a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, though it remains undiagnosed until it is too late. On trying to resume his routine, he suffers acute anxiety attacks in the company of others. He stops going to work but hides this from his family, spending his days on the computer while the house is empty before leaving home to fetch the car he parks each morning at his usual commuter station.
Trying to make sense of what has happened to him, Andreas finds himself drawn into labyrinthine online research into the human condition, the nature of evil and the interconnectedness of all things. His middle-class life falls apart – a scene in which his bewildered wife has invited friends for dinner is particularly excruciating to read – and he increasingly locks himself in his room, suffers from almost complete insomnia and neglects to eat or change his clothes. He plunges into paranoia, seeing himself as the only one who can save the world in the face of a vast plot, masterminded by a ‘new global brains trust’ of bankers and others with the aim of thwarting his plan to expose the ills of our current social, political and financial systems.
Restless Viktoria, meanwhile, soothed and churned up in equal measure by her therapy sessions, uses the summer break to investigate her own family past and makes some life-changing discoveries.
Bodil copes with her traumatic diagnosis by breaking out of her life of self-sacrifice. She throws up her job and at last finds the will to leave her demanding, controlling husband. She faces her bleak future alone but finds a few surprising new friends and sources of emotional strength, and amasses painkillers so she can take her leave at a point of her choosing, frightened by the prospect of becoming reliant on the services of others. She looks back on the family she grew up with: a damaged, self-centred mother, a wayward sister and a quietly coping father with hidden depths. She remembers how, as a first-rate archaeology student with good career prospects, she fell for Krister, a depressive and over-mothered man who soon knew exactly how to control and isolate her.
Alvtegen has always been a skilled anatomist of social determinism, of power and powerlessness. Though both the reader and Bodil’s daughter are exasperated that Bodil has not escaped sooner, the author clearly reveals the mechanisms that make a person stay in a destructive marriage. In Bodil and Vikoria’s fates we also observe that parental heritage cannot be discounted, and human craving for warmth and affection should never be underestimated.
The novel’s loose ends are finally tied up, perhaps a little too neatly, and we discover by means of slightly contrived plotting how the characters interconnect and how they are linked to the train crash. This is Alvtegen’s second novel since her well-advertised announcement that she was moving on from the crime-fiction genre in which she made her name, and the Swedish critics often ponder how her writing has evolved since then. Several reviewers of this latest work suggested the novel would have had more impact with fewer strands to its plot, and I concur. There is much to engage the reader here, particularly in Bodil’s story, but it is time for this fine psychological novelist to stand on her own undoubted merits and throw away the crutches of over-intricate plots or artificially injected drama.