Shame, By Karin Alvtegen, translated by Stephen T Murray

Parallel lives come together in a story of fear and loathing in Stockholm
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The Independent Culture

Karin Alvtegen's Missing, a psychological thriller set in Stockholm and featuring an anti-heroine drifting apart from society, won the award for best Nordic crime novel. The great-niece of children's favourite Astrid Lindgren, author of the Pippi Longstocking stories, set out her stall as a crime writer of dark distinction. Shame continues the good work in creating female characters who set themselves beyond the pale.

Although elements of the plot live up to the melodramatic title, Stephen T Murray's translation is precise enough and Alvtegen's exposition sufficiently fast-paced to absorb the shock of disbelief. Two women - attractive, dynamic Monika and obsese, clinically depressed Maj-Britt - seem to have nothing in common except their stories, which are told in parallel. Alvtegen's theme is an abiding sense of shame, due to events in their past that they have attempted, unsuccessfully, to bury.

Monika is a successful doctor who has just met the love of her life, Thomas. She goes to a conference at which participants are encouraged to reveal their deepest secrets. Here her troubles start: we know that her adored older brother died in tragic circumstances and that her mother continues to mourn him in preference to cherishing her, but what she is loath to reveal is her sense of responsibility for his death - she is suffering from "survivor guilt". She rushes back to Stockholm to pacify her mother and confide in her lover. In so doing, she trades lifts with a devoted husband and father.

A car crash that Monika is convinced was meant for her - in that it kills the exemplary family man - plunges her into an ecstasy of grief and self-abnegation. Meanwhile, Maj-Britt, who lives in the same block of flats as the newly bereaved wife and child, sits in a stew of self-loathing and hostility towards the outside world. Alvtegen's contrivance for getting her two women together is a little creaky, but what she does with their inner worlds is riveting. Maj-Britt, in particular, commands our attention, with a family history of religious fanaticism and its comrade-in-arms, sexual guilt.

Alvtegen makes her readers work at winkling out motivation. Monika's attempts at recompense are not entirely plausible but, ballasted with a fine detailing of extreme mental states, Alvtegen gets away with it. The novel reaches its climax when her fat lady sings, and the ensuing resolution is beautifully handled. Shame gives way to acceptance and enduring peace of mind.