What is your capacity for reading descriptions of extreme sexual violence in novels? In the 21st century, two things are becoming clear: first, that more and more writers are prepared (even eager) to tackle this once verboten area; and that there is among some readers a resistance to it. Even massively successful novelists such as Stieg Larsson have acquired a vocal contingent of objectors who feel the treatment of rape and sexual abuse is not as responsible as the authors would have us think.
But the literary furore around Lisbeth Salander's graphically described violations will seem small beer if Hans Koppel's She's Never Coming Back repeats the success in translation that it has already enjoyed in Sweden. The author's real name is Karl Petter Lidbeck, and he has written some much-acclaimed children's books. Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir also made her mark as a writer of children's books, and said that she was building up "bad thoughts" that had to be released in an adult novel. It would appear that "Koppel" has similarly been incubating dark things.
This is indeed an extremely adroit piece of work. But some will find the appalling sexual humiliation and brutalisation of its heroine, kept prisoner in a cellar, hard to take – and consolidated by the crushing sense of despair that Koppel conveys. It's a measure of his writing skills that we follow the plight of a mother and wife devoted to her family with an almost physical sense of dread.
When Mark Zetterberg's wife, Ylva, does not return from work, he is not initially worried, but her absence initiates a nightmare for him. His discomfort, however, is nothing compared with that of his wife. She has been captured and is being subjected to ritual torture and debasement for initially unexplained reasons – other than to destroy her will. There is one final horror: she is being held captive in the house opposite her own.
Whatever your own reaction to the treatment of Ylva here, this is a supremely professional piece of work with a palpable sense of tension, and couched in unvarnished prose (in a utilitarian translation by Kari Dickson).