Reviewed by Deborah Bragan-Turner in SBR 2016:2
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
This spine-chilling thriller has three main characters. The first is a fin-de- siècle apartment building in Stockholm, on the surface a fine example of its kind, but hiding a dark secret. The second is an elderly man who has only set foot outside the building once in his entire life. Officially he does not exist; his parents were the caretakers and since their death he has lived in the narrow corridors hidden behind false walls in the apartments. And the third is a nine- year-old girl who has recently moved here with her mother and two sisters; she has difficulty making friends and a strong desire to make contact with her absent father and dead grandmother.
The story centres on the clandestine life of the old man, W, who lives alone in his strange world behind the walls, spying through secret doors and openings on the inhabitants of the thirty-two apartments, and entering their homes when they are out at work or asleep. Craving a physical closeness to other humans but unable to form any relationships, he often sleeps under their beds at night. He starts to take risks; he remains in one place for so long that he is forced to kill the woman who discovers him the following morning. Unable to deal with her body in his world behind the walls, he returns her decomposing corpse to the apartment two weeks later and her husband is charged with the murder.
Though crimes are definitely committed, this is not a conventional crime novel. The young girl, Alva, meanwhile becomes increasingly estranged from her mother and sisters and ever more interested in the occult, casting a spell on a class bully and sacrificing a rat (having failed to cut the throat of a kitten) to the spirits. Sensing a presence in the building, Alva eventually meets W and they become friends.
A new landlord, Henry Johnsson, comes on the scene – a lonely divorced man with a touch of OCD, whose relationship with his grown-up children is not close. After buying the building at auction and finding discrepancies between the apartment sizes and the original architects’ plans, he becomes suspicious and investigates. Whilst his demise does not come as a complete surprise to the reader, the manner in which W and Alva join forces to keep their secret world safe is nevertheless a shock.
Emma Ångström builds tension from the beginning in a story that combines murder, voyeurism, the occult, horror and suspense. The narrative is tightly written and gripping, her style assured and clear. This is her second book; writer and Swedish Academy member Per Wästberg compared her first novel, with its portrayal of Stockholm and of lovelorn characters, to Hjalmar Söderberg’s debut work Förvillelser (Delusions), published in 1895. W’s and Alva’s personalities are gradually revealed in a manner reminiscent of Emma Donoghue’s Room, while Alva’s character gives more than a hint of the demon child possessed by evil spirits. And yet both W and Alva at times evoke a feeling of sympathy. Whilst she might have been partly inspired by the Josef Fritzl case, the author, a qualified architect, has said in interview that her main inspiration came from her professional work and an interest in the many hidden spaces that can exist in buildings.
Mystery and the supernatural run through the novel, as well as the complexities of human relationships. Emma Ångström has struck a rich seam with this scary page-turner and happily she plans more.