Monday, October 12, 2015

BrokenBroken by Karin Fossum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"This severed bridge, so majestic. But a beautiful construction nonetheless, he could see that: simple but ingenious, beautiful and arched, delicate yet strong. But also amputated [...] It certainly was broken."

Karin Fossum is one of my favorite authors: her writing transcends the genre as she has been able to convey some truths about the human condition under the guise of crime/mystery writing. This is my 12th novel by Ms. Fossum but only the seventh that I have reviewed here (I rated two of her novels, Black Seconds and The Murder of Harriet Krohn with five stars). While publishers - based on the extremely successful Sejer/Skarre series - call her the Norwegian Queen of Crime, I would rather assign the title of Queen of Little Things in Life as she focuses in her works on motives of everyday human behaviors. To me, the most important facet of Ms. Fossum's art is that she treats all characters as humans, regardless of whether they are saints or child molesters, and that rather than praise or condemn people she tries to understand them.

Broken (2005) is not an Inspector Sejer novel; it is a one-off work, and for this alone I hold the author in high respect. I find it difficult to admire authors who become readers' slaves by getting irrevocably bound to their series' protagonists. One of Ms. Fossum's motives for writing this non-series book might have been to show that she is a real artist - a creator rather than just a replicator of a successful, money-making template.

The novel is an exercise in metafiction. It is narrated by a middle-aged female author (obviously an alter ego of real-life Ms. Fossum - even the birthdates are the same). Potential literary characters line up in front of her house trying to become protagonists of her next novel; they are waiting for their stories to be told. When one of them manages to convince the author to write a book about him, she names him Alvar Eide and builds his character through a series of vignettes - a lonely, mild-mannered, naively well-meaning, and socially awkward man, who works as a salesman and factotum in an art gallery. He meets a young woman, a heroin addict, who uses him and his good intentions to get cash for her fixes and to crash in his apartment. The fictional plot moves forward to its natural if somewhat dramatic conclusion.

However, the metafictional layer of the text just plain does not work. Other than a modest meditation on how writers create their characters and build the plot, I do not find much redeeming value in the "meta-" aspect here. Perhaps I am spoiled by having read works of such masters of the metafictional genre as Coetzee and Nooteboom but I find the conversations between the author and Alvar pretty much inane.

The title of the novel seemingly refers to a painting that plays an important role in the plot. Yet it might also refer to Alvar himself, a broken human being, devoid of basic mechanisms of coping with reality. I hope that maybe one day, when asked during an interview why she called the book "Broken", Ms. Fossum will mischievously answer: "Why? It is simple - the title reflects breaking the monotony of the Sejer series..."

Two and a half stars.

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