This Swedish thriller has Larsson beat (ALL REVIEW) - Macleans.ca

This Swedish thriller has Larsson beat (ALL REVIEW)

Plus, the Bermuda Triangle of parenting, the complicated Clarence Darrow, a suspense novel for the beach, a loyal dog and Augusten Burroughs’s mother

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THE HYPNOTIST

Lars Kepler

It didn’t take long for the enormous popularity of this thriller in its native Sweden to out the literary couple—novelists Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril—behind a pseudonym adopted, in part, as a tribute to Girl With the Dragon Tattoo author Stieg Larsson. (Three weeks, in fact, once the media pressure went into overdrive when it was announced the movie version would be helmed by Oscar-nominated director Lasse Hallström.) The nod to Larsson is ironic, given that there is more real dread and sorrow, and far better writing, in The Hypnotist than in all three volumes of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy combined. Not only does evil beget evil over generations—the sins of the fathers (and mothers) graphically laid upon the children—no good deed goes unpunished either. It’s very Swedish, somehow evoking both loneliness and claustrophobia at the same time, disturbing to read, and very, very good.

Shortly before Christmas, almost an entire family is slaughtered in a Stockholm suburb, two parents and a two-year-old girl literally sliced to ribbons. A 15-year-old son, Josef, though cut by as many knife wounds as the others, is still alive; so, too, is an older daughter no longer living at home. Detective Joona Linna is certain that the killer is searching for the absent sister, and that he must penetrate Josef’s coma for the information the police need to reach her first. Linna turns to a doctor who gave up hypnotism for good reason 10 years before. Convinced of the emergency, though, Erik Bark acquiesces. That decision, made for the best of motives, sets in motion a new and equally gruesome series of events.

For all the gore, the novel is primarily a psychological tale, full of twists and turns, and profoundly realistic. Even the happy ending betrays subtle hints that this kind of violence to body and soul can never be considered over and done with: everyone in The Hypnotist is changed by what happens, and not always for the better. BRIAN BETHUNE

THE GAP YEAR

Sarah Bird

Cam Livesey wakes up one day to discover that her teenage daughter Aubrey is missing. Or rather, the daughter Cam once knew is missing. In her place is a beautiful yet eye-rolling, lippy, constantly grumpy, deceitful young gal. What happened to the helpful, fun-loving kid who used to snuggle with her and read The Secret Garden? Sarah Bird executes a marvellous rendering of what is surely the Bermuda Triangle of parenting: that cringing stage between a child’s last years of high school and first year of university when a switch goes off in your teen’s head and they transform into cunning, monosyllabic aliens with attitude.

Parents turn into super-valets—so eager to please and be needed as they suffer their offspring’s dismissiveness. When something goes awry even a conscientious parent like Cam is left flailing: “What do I do now? I have no idea on earth where my daughter is. I no longer know any of her friends. And even if I could track her down, then what do I do? Stand outside a locked door and scream at her? Call the police to drag her home? At which point they ask how old she is and hang up when I say 18.” Sound familiar?

Single parent Cam is trying to hold it together for one more day, long enough to get her daughter to the bank to cash out her trust fund to finance her first year at university. Thing is, Aubrey has other plans that involve a life she hasn’t told her mom about, and an enigmatic badass boyfriend with secrets of his own. But this is not a bleak novel; it’s funny and smart. Alternating diary entries penned by both Cam and Aubrey during a particularly icky year bristle with bull’s-eye wit and honesty. Cam’s job as a lactation consultant (she’s known in the neighbourhood as “the boob whisperer”) becomes more ironic as the story progresses: she has a knack for getting infants to latch on to their mothers, and an oblivious inability to detach herself from her young-adult daughter. The story is as much about connecting as about letting go. Think you know your kids? Think again. JANE CHRISTMAS

CLARENCE DARROW:

ATTORNEY FOR THE DAMNED

John A. Farrell

Clarence Darrow was, putting it narrowly, the greatest criminal lawyer of all time. But he was much more than that. He described himself as a socialist, populist and philosophical anarchist. Supporters called him a friend to labour, blacks and women. His enemies called him the devil’s disciple. Darrow earned his reputation as the lawyer for hopeless causes during the United States’ era of industrial violence at the turn of the 20th century. With his gift for courtroom theatrics and a liberal world view, he found common cause with unions and the underclass. Despite overwhelming evidence tying his clients to bombings or murders, he found success, more often than not, by shifting juries’ focus away from facts and toward motives and emotions. He once earned a not guilty verdict for a boy who shot a sheriff point-blank serving eviction papers on his destitute mother. “There are things to consider . . . besides bloodshed,” he once told a federal commission on industrial relations.

A genius in front of juries, Darrow was also an extremely complicated man, as Farrell makes plain in this detailed account of his life and politics. He never followed the crowd: tirelessly crusading against the death penalty and racism while supporting free love, anarchy and atheism. He also had an insatiable need for money and, despite his reputation as a friend to the poor and disenfranchised, would often take cases for the retainer rather than the cause; he defended numerous Chicago gangsters, a corrupt municipal gas deal, and engineered a U.S. naval officer’s escape from justice in a racially motivated murder case. Even his supporters found frequent reason to criticize him.

The capstone to his career was the famous Monkey Trial of 1925 in which he defended Tennessee teacher John Scopes against a state law that forbade teaching Darwinism: at age 68, Darrow returned from retirement to once more tackle the mob. “We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the U.S.,” he thundered in court. He lost the case. Won on appeal. And remains to this day a towering figure in law. PETER SHAWN TAYLOR

THE END OF EVERYTHING

Megan Abbott

Thirteen-year-olds Evie Verver and Lizzie Hood have been next-door neighbours and best friends their whole lives. As little girls in matching checked swimsuits and muddy-coloured bobs, people couldn’t tell them apart. Sometimes Lizzie gets confused, too, and will catch herself looking for the scar on her leg, then remember that the scar is Evie’s. Lizzie is also steeped in the lore and culture of Evie’s family, privy, for example, to the tantalizing secret that Evie’s glamorous and unfathomable older sister Dusty is named for the artist whose album her parents listened to 16 times on the night she was conceived. Evie and Lizzie spend many a night eavesdropping on Dusty and Mr. Verver as they sit on the back patio and mock the amorous overtures of Dusty’s admirers. “I bet it popped out,” Mr. Verver teases Dusty one evening, when she describes how she ejected an earring from her date’s trachea by hitting him on the back. Listening to father and daughter howl in subversive delight, “All I could think was how wondrous it was—oh, the two of them,” Lizzie remembers later.

That was five days before Evie disappeared, and a rare moment in which Lizzie found that she couldn’t read Evie’s thoughts. In fact, Evie had become increasingly opaque in the weeks before she went missing. But she did let it drop that a man had been watching her—her, not Dusty—through her bedroom window at night. Lizzie reports this critical clue and unearths several more, winning Mr. Verver’s shining gratitude and attention.

A child disappears, a family drama bubbles up—it is a narrative device common to literary mystery fiction, but few authors employ it as skilfully as Abbott has in her sixth novel. Beneath a story tight with suspense, she pokes at even spookier questions: what if a girl who was kidnapped wanted to be taken? What if a father makes his daughter feel so special that she never wants to grow up? And, when it comes to sex, how does a young woman decide what to give and what to take, what to sacrifice and what to save? DAFNA IZENBERG

BAD DOG (A LOVE STORY)

Martin Kihn

Frustrated dog owners who like to tipple will find solace and instruction in this memoir. Martin Kihn is too busy sneaking a “voddy” to devote much time to his long-suffering wife, Gloria. Meanwhile, their incorrigible Bernese mountain dog, Hola, has run amok. Kihn must reclaim his derailed life when Gloria decamps for their cottage after Hola crosses the line and attacks her. “What I know now is that settling for a dog who is housebroken and doesn’t draw blood is like settling for a child who can talk,” writes Kihn. He realizes his marriage is in peril so he joins AA and enrols Hola in the demanding Canine Good Citizen program. What follows is Marley & Me meets Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. The narrative’s coy appeal is that it provides much-needed levity to an otherwise pretty grim scenario. As Kihn struggles with his eccentric sponsor, learns the ropes at obedience school and forgoes his personal dignity, the reader starts to root for him and Hola.

Also keeping the narrative aloft is Kihn’s kindling-dry wit. Here’s a description of the austere rural obedience camp he and Hola attend: “Big dog events tend to be held in places humans abandoned in the 1950s—out-of-the-way, downscale locations with no heat, no cellular reception, no TVs in the room, no Internet, no tiki bar or hot tubs or robes or room service.” I like to imagine Will Ferrell playing Kihn in the film adaptation in which Hola sniffs crotches, refuses to stay and sleeps on the family sofa. Read Bad Dog. It’s entertaining, authentic and self-effacing. Kihn is occasionally upstaged by Hola’s antics in this authentic love story, but her loyal presence will surely help keep him sober. PATRICIA DAWN ROBERTSON

THE LONG JOURNEY HOME:

A MEMOIR

Margaret Robison

When the author, an American poet, first tried to leave her abusive husband, he yelled, “The cars are mine! The house is mine! The land is mine!” Robison’s close friend (and eventual lover) Suzanne replied: “What’s Margaret’s, John?” Robison, meanwhile, wondered, “Is the story of my life mine?”

The first person to tell that story—or a version of it—was Robison’s son Augusten Burroughs, in his 2002 memoir, Running with Scissors. Burroughs depicts his mother as eccentric, narcissistic and often psychotic, writing how she signed custody of him over to her less-than-professional (and possibly also psychotic) psychiatrist, William Turcotte. In her own account, Robison confirms much of her son’s story (not always on purpose), while also providing some context and revealing many more dimensions of her character.

Her tale begins with her own mother, Louisa, whose affection and approval always evaded her, and about whom Robison was deeply ambivalent. At 14, she overheard her mother agonize over the possibility that Robison was gay. At 21, when Robison confessed to being frightened of her future husband, Louisa suggested that she “just tell him.” Instead, Robison married him, convinced that’s what her mother truly wanted.

Fifteen years later, John’s suicidal threats led Robison to Turcotte, and the beginning of a long and destructive relationship. It is hard to say who drove her craziest: mother, husband or shrink. But Robison sees her psychosis as a creative force, ultimately helping her become a published poet (years before her son was a published memoirist). Burroughs derides her talent (Robison claims he despaired having to write in her “shadow”), but his mother has an undeniable gift for lyrical description (particularly of madness). She has more trouble conjuring how her illness affected her children, and claims her abandonment of Burroughs to Turcotte was a technicality so he could attend a certain school. Still, Robison’s ability to recover from misfortunes that might have broken her—including a debilitating stroke in her mid 50s, as well as Burroughs’s book—suggests that, in the end, she can clearly claim her life story as her own.

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