Review: Camera by Eva Marie Liffner

13 January 2008

camera.jpgIt’s taken me a while to get around to reading Camera but I’m glad that I have now finally done it. This is one of those book which forces you to read between the lines to gain the full flavour of the story – it allows the reader to accept the writer’s assumption of awareness and attention to what she and her characters are saying and thinking. It is a quite remarkable achievement.

The story moves seamlessly between the 1980/90s and the past. Johanna Hall, a Swedish photographer, is tracking down some photographs that she has inherited , along with the rest of his property, from her uncle Jacob Hall, also a photographer (not sure how the dates and relationships all work out here) who was living in London in 1905. While there, he got involved with the Theosophist Society, including activist Annie Besant and the Reverend Charles Leadbetter, and also with W T Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette who arranged for the photographer Herbert Burrows to train Joseph in his craft (it’s not referred to in the book, but in fact a Herbert Burrows – not a photographer – was once, apparently, Annie’s colleague and lover).

Anyway, it seems there is something dodgy going on between Charles Leadbetter and a group of boys who are staying in the theosophists’ house, with Leadbetter claiming that they are being used in experiments to photograph souls, but the evidence suggesting something rather more mundane and sordid. Bodies and disappearances become involved, along with a damaged child, sister to one of the boys, and it is Joseph’s and later Johanna’s investigations into what went on that take the story forward.

Throughout the book there are number of recurring images – dreams, sharp acidic sharp smells, cats – that establish linkages of a sort in the narrative. The story moves around in time and place but in the end does not claim to resolve anything. Towards the end, Johanna muses:

I have had time to think and to accept that it is impossible to find answers to every question. Some facts make no sense in any context. It’s like having sorted two jigsaw puzzles found in the attic all mixed together in the same old box of sweet-smelling cardboard. There will be pieces that just don’t fit, and to expect otherwise would be silly.

Johanna goes on to her next project of recording graves about to be dismantled, and it’s not just the biographical details that interest her, but the choice of stone, the position of the grave and details like symbols of death. Details that in the end are probably pointless and of interest to no-one, but in their recording is an activity, like sorting the jigsaw puzzles, that fills in time.

Despite the lack of any real resolution, or perhaps because of it, I found this is a very satisfying book to read. The mix of real, historical figures and places and the imagined is so well done that it sends you off on research into those people and places. The fascination of photography and what the image is capable of telling you that the eye might not otherwise see, provides the basic driver of the story.

Camera by Eva-Marie Liffner, translated from the Swedish by Anna Paterson, Vintage. ISBN: 0 099 45519 6

Other books by Eva-Marie Liffner – Imago, Drömmaren och sorgen

Review: Depths by Henning Mankell

21 November 2007

DepthsHenning Mankell has written a series of novels which take us through the life and cases of Inspector Kurt Wallander of the Skane police in southern Sweden. Inspector Wallander is not the happiest of men and the atmosphere of the books reflects this. Lars Tobiasson-Svartman, in Depths, makes Wallander look like a model of sanity and decorum. This is someone who is more than troubled, who is in fact a criminal, in many different ways. So this book is the other side of the coin of the Wallander novels – it is about the collapse of a man who tries to understand himself but cannot help embracing the terrors that lie within his mind.

The story is about Lars Tobiasson-Svartman, a commander in the Swedish navy in the early years of WW1. He is a naval engineer, an expert at sounding depths in order to chart channels so that Sweden’s warships can safely navigate the archipelagos of its Baltic coast. He longs to find an unfathomable depth. In the course of his work, Lars chances on a woman, Sara, living on a remote and rocky islet, and becomes obsessed with her, while at the same time obsessing about his relationship with his wife, Kristina Tacker. His relationships with colleagues are strange – his captain drops dead, and his private journal reveals that he hated Lars. Lars strikes out, physically, at others when he is disappointed or frustrated – a seaman, Sara’s cat.

The tale is about Lars’ descent into madness as he succumbs to his obsession with Sara, and returns to her islet. He finds a German deserter living with her, and his descent into his own unfathomable depths begins. The shallow facade of his professional and personal life self-destructs, as his carefully laid plans, lies and stratagems to maintain a facade for his life begin to crumble under the weight of their unreality. There are no navigable channels for Lars – only shoals and reefs and inevitable wreckage.

Depths confirms for me that Henning Mankell is a powerful and thoughtful writer. I always look forward to his books.

The translator of this book is Laurie Thompson, who has also translated Åke Edwardson’s novels, as well as some of Mankell’s other books.

Details Publisher: Vintage ISBN: 9780099488651

Other books by Henning Mankell – see Wikipedia entry.

Review: Never End by Åke Edwardson

22 October 2007

neverend.jpgÅke Edwardson is another Scandinavian writer, in this case Swedish, whose translated books are a welcome addition. I had previously read Sun and Shadow, which introduced Chief Inspector Erik Winter, of Gothenburg, described on the jacket as “the youngest chief inspector in Sweden; he wears sharp suits, cooks gourmet meals, has a penchant for jazz…” In Never End, Gothenburg is sweltering under an unusually hot summer sun, and Winter and his team are faced with a series of rapes and murders that seem to be linked with an unsolved crime from five years before. The victims are all young women, girls really, with no apparent link except that they have all just graduated from school and are on the threshold of their lives.

The heat of the summer gives a sense of suspension and unreality that adds to the frustration of the police team, as they struggle with uncooperative witnesses and the increasing awareness of breakdown and inevitability. The resolution moves between the sun and light of sunbathing teenagers to the depths of the city’s clubland and crime scene, with a shaded spot in a city park as their nexus.

In this story, the characters and motivations of the Winter and his colleagues are as important as the plot and its mechanisms. Relationships, especially, are key, whether hinted at or obvious. Much of this is conveyed through dialogue, and the effectiveness says much for the skills of the translator, Laurie Thompson. The flow and rhythm of the writing is effective in maintaining the tension as well as illustrating the characters and the relationships.

The book was originally written in 2000 and while forensic technology has a part, it does not obtrude to take over or solve things. That is left to the hard work and insights of Erik Winter and his friends and colleagues. It also reflects their dedication, perhaps obsession, with their job that is in danger of outweighing the rest of their lives. This is especially illustrated through Winter’s relationship with his partner Angela and their baby daughter, Elsa.

In his books, Åke Edwardson shows us Gothenburg,the second-largest city in Sweden, so its not the rural/provincial flatness of Henning Mankell’s Skane, or the intrigues of Liza Marklund’s Stockholm. But it does reflect the changing nature of Swedish society and the responses to it.

Details: Publisher: Vintage Books ISBN: 978-0-099-47206-3

Other books by Åke Edwardson (in English) – Sun and Shadow, Frozen Tracks.

For a fuller list, including untranslated books, see the Wikipedia entry on Åke Edwardson.