All The Books I Can Read

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Review: Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

on May 8, 2017

Malin Persson Giolito
Simon & Schuster AUS
2017, 406p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

The air is hazy and grey with gunpowder smoke. Everyone has been shot but me. I haven’t got so much as a bruise….

There were six of them in the classroom, people who do not usually hang out together. Five were students, but they weren’t sitting in neat rows that morning, listening intently to their tutor. No. Their normal day – indeed their lives – were about to be irrevocably destroyed…

Who were they? Why were they there, in that particular room at that particular time? And why, nine months later, is 18-year-old Maja Norbert standing in a courtroom, flanked by lawyers, reciting under her breath:

You are innocent until the courts have ruled that you are guilty… 

The front of this book declares it the Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year. I’m not sure if that’s an award or just a proclamation but when I picked it up, I have to admit I thought hmm, another jaded police detective probably with an alcohol problem, a divorce and maybe an internal investigation hanging over his head.

Nope. Oh no. This is not that book. At all.

Maria “Maja” Norberg is a student at an exclusive school in a wealthy neighbourhood in Sweden. Her parents are a mix of old and new money and Maja has had a privileged upbringing that includes international holidays abroad and just about everything she could ever want. She catches the eye of Sebastian Fagerman, son of a billionaire, the kind of wealth that people can only dream about, even Maja’s family. Sebastian is a law unto himself – repeating his senior year of school due to flunking out last year, he throws lavish parties inviting anyone that takes his fancy, consumes loads of drugs and introduces Maja to a life of cruising on his father’s boat and never ever having to wait in a nightclub queue.

For a while, everything is wonderful. But Sebastian’s darker side becomes more and more apparent, cluing Maja in on a troubled boy with mental health problems and a brutal father who either cannot or will not care for his son. It ends with Maja left in a room of people, the only one not shot. Was she a willing participant? Was it a murder-suicide pact gone wrong and she changed her mind at the last minute? Or is it something more sinister, was Maja just a pawn in a game that was always going to end this way?

The book is narrated solely by Maja and is broken down into parts, mostly focusing on her trial with flashbacks to flesh out her relationship with Sebastian, her friendship with her best friend Amanda, her family life, the complicated friendship with fellow student Samir and Sebastian’s troubled relationship with his father Claes.

It would be easy dismiss Maja and her friends as spoiled little rich kids – and there’s no doubt that for the most part, they are. But the author takes the time to go deeper than that, to examine the pressures and stresses of teenage life when not living up to expectations. In his father’s eyes, there’s no doubt that Sebastian is an epic f*ck up, not even close to living up to his older brother who is away at university in America. In some ways I think Sebastian is a self-fulfilling prophecy. He believes what his father tells him and then he does his best to live up to that reputation. There are several cries for help in this book that mostly go ignored – except by Maja.

“No one asked if I wanted to save Sebastian, but you all blame me for failing….”

I had conflicted feelings about Maja at the beginning – her narration is detached, like this is happening to someone else. I had a brief wondering if she was a sociopath, so removed from the situation did she seem. But as the narrative unfolded and she revealed more and more about the disintegration of her relationship with Sebastian, the amount of pressure people put on her to ‘fix him’, to ‘be there for him’ became apparent. Maja is just a teenager, she’s not emotionally mature enough for this sort of thing and also as she states several times during her story, it wasn’t her job. She was essentially not only girlfriend to Sebastian but also both parents, keeper, psychologist, behavioural expert. And although a few people noticed changes in her, they didn’t seem to explore them, or wonder what they could do to help. In many ways, they left her to it, a failing on many levels.

This book is more than just a portrayal of rich, privileged teens and how that all came unraveled. It’s also a social critique, with a look at the immigrant situation in Sweden as well as the inequitable distribution of the world’s wealth. It’s done in a way that blends it seamlessly into the story in a scene where Maja and Sebastian’s class welcome a guest speaker. The talk is also attended by various fathers from the school and the children have pre-approved questions to ask at the end. One of them goes “off the cuff” in a question about wealth and the “social problem” of immigrants and it’s one of the most interesting scenes in the book.

I appreciated the way that the narrative made me really debate in my mind whether or not Maja was guilty. I honestly didn’t know for sure for the longest time whether or not she had been a willing participant or not….. She’s a slightly unreliable narrator as her views are coloured by the feelings she has for the people in them and as she’s also the only narrator we get, the reader has to decide how much faith they’re willing to place in her words. And at the end, it’s still a choice the reader has to make – was the decision reached the right one?

For me, this book was absolutely brilliant – it made me think about so many things. I actually took a few days to read it, because I was mulling so many things over in my mind. I even stopped to discuss bits and pieces of it with my husband, the different social, moral and psychological questions that it raised as I was reading it. I found it a very interesting take on a troubling and difficult topic to tackle and I would love to read more by this author in the future.


Book #82 of 2017

One response to “Review: Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

  1. […] Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito. This book blew my mind. I absolutely loved it. A Swedish crime novel centreing on a court case in the aftermath of a school shooting. Make your own mind up about Maja, the detached teenage girl narrator. Definitely need more by this author! […]

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