Having just read and thoroughly enjoyed another book by this author, I was delighted to get my hands on another of her books so quickly. Karin Alvtegen is a Swedish author who concentrates on psychological thrillers something along the lines of Nicci French. Now that the nights are drawing in and Halloween is almost upon us, this is the perfect type of book to keep me company in the evening. Or so I thought. Compared to Betrayal, the authors second book, this one just doesnt quite cut the mustard. Overly complicated, I came to the end of the book confused and a little annoyed that some of my questions werent answered.
Two women, unknown to each other, are living their lives ruled by shame. Monika, a doctor, could have prevented the death of her brother if she hadnt been so tired. Unable to forgive herself, she throws her life into saving other people, but has great difficulty in making and maintaining relationships. Maj-Britt was brought up by fiercely religious parents who instilled into her a fear of God and a belief that sex was a disgusting, perverted act. Eating herself to obesity, she withdraws from the world, her only contact with other human life being the carers that clean and shop for her.
Then one day, their lives are thrown unceremoniously together because of a car accident that in which someone dies. As the driver of the car and Monikas friend is Maj-Britts carers mother and Maj-Britt desperately needs to see a doctor, the two meet. Will they discover that each other is suffering from a very similar problem shame is ruling their lives? Will they be able to help each other say goodbye to the past?
I think the main problem with this book is that I didnt take to either character. It is not that I didnt feel sorry for them, it is just that the way they were portrayed did not encourage me to want to root for them. Monika cannot forget the mistake she made when she was a teenager and this is exacerbated by her mother, who also blames her. Although she is successful in her career and has plenty of money, she cannot seem to make lasting relationships; at least until she meets Thomas. Even then though, she feels that she doesnt deserve his solicitude and is eventually forced to break the ties. I did feel sorry for her, but at the same time, I found her deeply annoying. She is an intelligent woman and I would have thought she could have recognised that she needs psychological help; yet she continues to punish herself in a way that becomes increasingly bizarre and unbelievable. In the end, I didnt really care what happened to her.
Maj-Britt was not much better. She had a terrible childhood and it is not surprising that she suffers as she does. Again though, there is so much self-pity here that the urge to give her a good slap overtook most of my sympathy this is despite the fact that I have frequent contact with vulnerable people who have all sorts of gut-wrenching problems and for whom I have the deepest of feelings. There was just something that didnt click with either of these characters and I do think that a good book needs at least one character for whom the reader can care.
Apart from the characters, I also felt that the story didnt work very well. The link that brings the two women together is spurious to say the least and because of this, the story felt forced and unnatural. Other parts of the book felt disjointed. There is a thread running through it about another woman, who knew Maj-Britt in her past life and who has also suffered deeply, yet we never find out why she did what she did and her role is not particularly clear. By the time I reached the end and expected the story to finally make sense, I was disappointed to find that not all of it did, which was a final blow.
Another part of the book that I found totally unbelievable was Monikas initial meeting with Thomas one of those vomit-inducing love at first sight moments that I find both naïve and deeply irritating. Maybe Im just unromantic and cynical, but this was just another thread in a book full of unrealistic happenings.
Despite my misgivings, this isnt a dreadful book. It is a psychological thriller; I did want to know what happened and this did keep me going until the bitter end. And after all, I did start the book with the highest of expectations. I certainly wouldnt write Karin Alvtegen off because of this book; Betrayal, the other book of hers that I have read was much better and she clearly has the ability to write a much better book. However, I wouldnt advise anyone wanting to read any of her books to start with this one it may well put you off.
Translated from the Swedish by Steven T Murray, it is hard to believe that it wasnt originally written in English.
The book is available from play.com for £7.49. Published by Canongate Books, it has 320 pages. ISBN: 184195747X
Two women are trapped by a past that won't let them go. As Maj-Britt festers malevolently in her hermetic apartment, appeased only by an endless supply of food, Monika blots out her pain by ceaselessly working, punishing herself unforgivingly for any failure. They have nothing in common but the determination to obliterate their memories and be left alone - but when a letter and a tragic accident force each of them to confront the past, their lives become inextricably intertwined. As the emotional void of their lives threatens to engulf them, each woman proves the catalyst for the other's destruction - or salvation. A taut psychological thriller, Shame subtly explores the devastating powers of fear, oppressive religion and forbidden sexuality. With all the elements of classic noir, Alvtegen has written her finest book to date.