Monday, October 21, 2013

Missing -Karin Alvtegen

When we first see Sibylla, she is  dining at the Grand Hotel's magnificent French dining room. She looks the part of the successful executive unwinding after a tough day at office. But why is her suit then having a false label (is she so concerned about appearances that she resorts to such falsehood?), why is the waist button of her skirt replaced by a safety-pin (if she can dine in such a posh hotel, couldn't she have put on a new dress before coming to dinner?), why is she thinking of stealing the towels in the hotel rooms (is she a kleptomaniac?). Because Sibylla is nothing like what seems to be. She is in her early thirties, has been living underground for the past 15 years or so and is now trying to sponge off a costly dinner from another customer. She succeeds in both getting her dinner and also avoiding the advances of her patron. But the next day when he is found murdered, Sibylla is on the run, accused of the murder. Multiple murders occur as Karin alternates events from the present with those from the past, giving us bits and pieces of Sibylla's past life.

The concept of living 'on the road'  has occurred a legendary status, but it is still a lifestyle that is admired by a lot, but not attempted by many voluntarily. The reason being that it is not as fun as it may seem from the outside (how much fun can one have when he/she doesn't know when the next meal will come and has been living with this uncertainty for years) and Karin gives us a non-celebratory, hard hitting account of the life which leaves us with mixed feelings. While one cannot but marvel at the ingenuity shown by Sibylla in getting by having almost nothing, we keep thinking about the circumstances that would force someone to choose such a lifestyle, voluntarily excluding oneself completely from society. As we get know about events from Sibylla's past, we understand her rationale for renouncing her past life and even empathize with her. It's a creepy account of psychological abuse heaped upon her by own mother Beatrice, with her stony silences, subtle condescending attitude, studied ignoring of her daughter to achieve her ends, which are more painful than a stinging slap across the face (excellent observation of human behavior by Karin). The irony here is that Beatrice wouldn't have any inkling of the damage she was causing her daughter (or at-least not openly accept). From her viewpoint, she would have been doing her best and Sibylla would be the ungrateful creature for not understanding her mother's love. Whatever the motivation of Beatrice, the situation at home makes Sibylla insecure, feeling at fault for even things that are beyond her control, always in a state of tension as to whether she has displeased her mother in anyway, torn between the conflicting feelings of obedience and wanting to break free. All this results in a lot of repressed feelings and as in such cases, the breakdown when it happens is of epic proportions and that's what happens with Sibylla, resulting in her voluntary exile to the margins of society. The irony of the title hits us when we realize that though Sibylla has been living like this for 15 odd years, no one seems to have missed her (until the murders occur and society wakes up to the fact that there is a person called 'Sibylla'). There are so many of these kind of missing people, people who are present and yet not present, visible yet as good as invisible, people whom their immediate kith/kin and society has a whole do not seem to realize that they have gone missing.

One is reminded of 'Lisbeth Salander' while reading the novel. Like Lisbeth, Sibylla is spunky, detests authority, doesn't care much for society and looks to lead life on her own terms. They have their points of divergence too  as Sibylla is has come from a upper-middle class/rich household, didn't face any physical abuse (though the mental manipulation would more than make up for it). She is not your usual 'super-heroine' who is always ready to kick ass. The shadows of her past are always dogging her, she has her moments of indecision, moments where she feels like just giving up on everything. But she manages to find some inner resource of strength (or hate against society?) to take the next step and proceed further. Karin is her best in these portions where she shows us the dynamics of the interplay in human relationships and when she takes us into the vortex of the human mind. You do have female protagonists in works of 'Helen Tursten', Yrsa Sigurdardottir' etc.  Yes, they are a change from the mostly male protagonists of crime fiction, but they conform to the archetype of the working women  who struggle to balance their personal and professional lives but manage to do a good job of both. Salander and Sibylla though are nothing like them, they blaze a new trail for female protagonists in crime fiction, in which I hope to see other writers proceeding (before turning the prototype into a cliche). I would have like to know more about Sibylla, but since this is a standalone novel there is no hope for it.

The best works in crime fiction (any genre fiction) are the ones that go beyond the conventions of their genre without losing out on the core. While Karin does a great job in the former, it is in the latter that she falters. Sibylla is on the run, multiple murders occur for which she is accused, but none of the tension that should arise from such a situation seeps through to us. This could very well be the result of Karin's masterful evocation of Sibylla's past whereby we are so caught up in that the actual core of the book seems secondary. But whatever the reason, as a genre fiction the book does suffer a bit. The assurance that Karin shows while dealing with relationships/people is in stark contrast to the haphazard manner in which the core of the story ties up, so much so that it wouldn't be much of a surprise to know that 2 different people wrote the different parts. It's not that one expects very professional sleuthing here, after all Sibylla is an amateur and that too without any contact with society for a long time, so one does expect a few missteps in Sibylla's pursuit of the truth. But the hurried manner in which everything gets resolved at the end is so fast that everything seems to happen and end in a flash and requires a giant leap of faith to digest. 

Contrast this with the relationship between Sibylla and Patrik, a 15 year old who gets acquainted with Sibylla and wants to help her out. With very little real time (as in the novel) to flesh this out, Karin does a first rate job it. Though it is her vagabond lifestyle that initially fascinates Partik, he probably being a nerd (with some hints thrown about it about him not liking sports, more into computers etc) sees a kindred spirit in Sibylla, a person who is also on the outside. Patrik also reminds Sibylla of her past in a certain way, which adds to the bond that Sibylla feels with him. Though the novel ends before it is more fleshed out, you feel that Karin has got a lot  from the relationship. Yes, you feel to know how/whether this relationship would progress, but that's in a good way and not like the resolution of the murder where you feel shortchanged. 

Though the book has some flaws  I recommend it, as Karin's is an edgy, assured (in most parts) voice, a voice that cuts through the bland murmurings of conventional crime fiction, one that is not not unduly worried about the norms of the genre (much like her heroine). I for one hope to listen to more of this voice in the future.

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