Reading UNWANTED, Kristina Ohlsson’s debut novel, is akin to dropping in free fall down an elevator shaft: you’re probably only going to do it once in a lifetime; it’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time; there’s really no way to stop; and you’re almost positive that, when it’s all over, it’s going to end badly. Beautifully translated by Sarah Death (what an appropriate name!), this is one of those no-sleep-‘til-you’re-finished books that will echo through your brain long after you read it.
"The plot is as riveting and exciting as anything you are likely to read this year. It is the characters Ohlsson weaves throughout the narrative that really make the book."
UNWANTED is terrifying; there is no other word that works quite so well. Set in various locales in Sweden, the novel begins with a woman named Sara Sebastiansson being left behind at a commuter train station, while Lilian, her six-year-old daughter, is still on a train. When it stops at the next station, mere minutes away, Lilian is gone and cannot be located. The case is assigned to Inspector Alex Recht and a team of federal investigators that includes Fredrika Bergman, an investigative analyst whose presence is not wholly welcomed. They initially believe that Lilian’s disappearance is an element in an ongoing custody dispute between Sara and her estranged husband.
But when Sara subsequently receives a horrifying parcel containing Lilian’s clothes and hair, the investigators realize that they may be dealing with something far worse than a domestic squabble. That fear is borne out when Lilian’s body is discovered in a hospital parking lot, far removed from the train station, with the single word “UNWANTED” painted on her forehead. The team is at a loss; there are few clues connected with the abduction and murder, and those seemingly lead nowhere. When a second child is kidnapped, one with no connection at all to the first victim, it becomes clear that they have their backs to the wall in their quest to apprehend a fiend who must be stopped immediately.
The plot is as riveting and exciting as anything you are likely to read this year. It is the characters Ohlsson weaves throughout the narrative that really make the book. Each member of the investigative team is deeply flawed in some way. Recht, a family man with a strong marriage, has difficulty relating to his fellow members in any more than a superficial manner. Bergman is a bit of a fish out of water; a creature of academia, she has some problems meshing with the gritty reality of the street, a factor that leads her co-workers to conclude --- prematurely and inaccurately --- that she has nothing to offer. At the same time, she is involved in an interesting relationship with a married man many years her senior, who may or may not be destructive. Peder Rydh is as good in his job as he is bad in his marriage. It seems as if Rydh is never quite where he wants to be or doing what he wants to do. Yet he is an insightful investigator, good at putting together apparently disparate elements of information and seeing a bigger picture.
The dynamic of Recht’s team at the end of the book is somewhat different from what it was at the beginning. Given that this is the first in a series (it was published in Sweden in 2009), more volumes (and changes) are undoubtedly on the way. Those who cannot get enough of mysteries, specifically Nordic noir, will quickly find reason to put Ohlsson at or near the top of their “must read” lists.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 29, 2012