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Deep in the stillness of a Norwegian forest, there stands a house with a view over a lake. A quiet queue of people stands at the door to the house, patiently waiting their turn. Old and young, in small groups or alone, everyone waits silently for the person in the house to answer their unspoken pleas. On the other side of the door there lives an author, a writer whose job it is to tell the tale of each person in the queue - once a year she invites the next person in line to come into the house and have their story told. At the front of the queue tonight is a young woman with a dead baby in her arms, but as the author retires to bed wondering what the woman's story will be, she is startled to hear the front door open and footsteps hesitantly mount the stairs. A man enters the author's bedroom and stands at the foot of her bed. He is a quiet middle aged man who fears his tale might be too nondescript to tell, and he has jumped the queue to speak to the author directly. After some discussion, the author is drawn into naming this man - Alvar Eide - and to ignoring the young woman who waits outside in favour of writing Alvar's story.
Alvar is 42, and becomes a loner in a small Norwegian town. His family are all dead, he has never had a relationship and has no friends; even choosing to acquire a cat for company takes a Herculean effort on his part. He is careful, neat and methodical in all that he does, a conscientious worker who ignores the outside world save to carry out his work, which he does with great care and pride. Alvar's simple life is built around the comfort of routines, his time divided between his neat bachelor flat and his job in the local gallery, where his knowledge of art at least allows him to make conversation with people. While he has never been in love, this is not to say Alvar cannot feel emotion. Upon see a dramatic new oil painting hung in the gallery, he is consumed with passion: "It was a huge and violent painting and he surrendered to it," believing that "it's my painting, I've been looking for this, this is the one for me". Alvar is quite happy in his solitude and his contemplation of art, until one day when he is brave enough to do a good deed - offering a cup of coffee to a half-frozen young drug addict - that will start to unravel his carefully constructed existence into an uncontrollable mess.
We therefore experience two things in this unusual and haunting novel by crime writer Karin Fossum: alternating sections between having Alvar's story told and hearing Alvar's conversations with the unnamed author who defines his existence. For all their surface differences, we soon realise that they are remarkably similar people, each fretting away their lives and choosing solitude over society in their own way. What is especially interesting about this device is that it allows the reader a tantalising glimpse into the creative process of a successful and prolific novelist. Does the author see these characters queuing for her as a result of the cocktail of sleeping pills, anti-depressants and alcohol she takes, we wonder, or is it that great writers really find their protagonists to be this real to them? Having the writer become a character in her own fiction is a strange but compelling tool, but serves to demonstrate the tortuous nature of the creative process, the love/hate relationship so many writers have with their work and the multiplicity of roles that writing can have in a writer's life. The writer has such a compulsion to make her work enthralling for her readers that she becomes very anxious; on more than one visit Alvar quietly chastises her dependence on wine and pills to see her through to publication.
In a recent interview Fossum gave, she made an unusual claim for a novelist: she doesn't do plots. Plots, she stated are unimportant in her books. Her job as a writer was to make the reader feel something, to move them and make them experience emotion. I wondered what exactly she meant by this until I read Broken, and then I understood. This is a simple (if imaginatively told) story where not a great deal happens. However, Fossum's knack of dazzlingly you with her expertly chosen words, her way of drawing you into her character's life makes you feel an awful lot when something does happen to Alvar. This is only a short novel, yet over the course of reading it I experienced more emotional involvement that I normally do in much longer novels where I am with the characters for longer periods.
The writing style throughout Broken is tightly controlled and very intense, at some times bordering on the claustrophobic as we focus intently upon the minutiae of one man's life. The prose is heavy on descriptions - a man such as Alvar would struggle to produce enough dialogue to fill a book - and these are a strong feature of the novel, being beautifully constructed and quite elegant in parts for all its darkness and cold humour.
While Fossum may be better known for her police procedural novels, she has broken the mould with this book. I have seen it described as a mystery story or a thriller, but I disagree; there is very little mystery about what will happen to poor Alvar, as you can see it coming a mile off and when it is does come, the effect is almost anti-climactic. This is just a simple story with a bit of drama in the second half, interspersed with reflections on what it is to be a creator of fictional worlds. It is an oddly structured but compelling and highly memorable novel, that I think will be of interest to anyone who has ever thought about fiction - good for readers but most definitely good for writers.
=== Details ===
Broken by Karin Fossum
Paperback, Vintage Books (2009)
RRP £7.99, current Amazon price £5.16