Broken: By Karin Fossum

The strange tale of a writer who became a character in her own dark novel
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The Independent Culture

Ever since the novel began, authors have been in intermittent dispute with their characters. Karin Fossum is a Norwegian writer of fiction, poetry and short stories. A great player with genre, she opens this novel with a midnight encounter between the author and the main character. Alvar Eide appears in Fossum's bedroom, disrupts her sleep, and ousts her intended subject by revealing too much, too soon, of her situation.

Alvar resorts to special pleading and a form of argument that becomes a motif. He becomes less a vehicle of Fossum's philosophy than a foil. The author thus becomes a character in her own fiction, alternating chapters of intensive debate (on death, art, worrying, smoking and other bad habits) with Alvar's otherwise narrow daily life.

Moving between the gallery of modern art where he works and the bachelor flat where he lives, Alvar acts the control freak within a restricted comfort-zone. Until, that is, two apparently minor but ultimately momentous events happen almost simultaneously. While concurring with Fossum that he "prefers men", Alvar has never been in love. Then the gallery acquires an oil painting of a half-built bridge with the title Broken. Alvar's fascination with and passion for the artwork is absolute – "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".

Its appearance coincides with another, equally violent. Alvar takes pity on a teenage heroin addict, so cold and desperate that he makes her a coffee. Once again, he is lost before he knows it: "She had clung on to the blue mug and her glance had demolished his defences." What Alvar stands to lose is not only his home and his savings (the precise 70,000 kroner required to purchase Broken), but his peace of mind, even his sanity. For the teenager is a user in both senses, and an abuser of every human gesture and generosity. Broken becomes a metaphor for their mutually dependent, destructive relationship, shuttling Alvar between the fictitious Katrine and the "real" Karin.

The tenor throughout is claustrophobic and intense. Descriptions – of weather, interiors, a truly terrifying interlude with a domestic cat worthy of Poe – are among the strongest features of this somewhat strange novel. Harrowing and shocking, it is also an original exploration of the multiplicity of roles that not only characters but writers can play.