Saturday, March 2, 2013

This unconventional novel by Karin Fossum will delight some readers and, I suspect, confuse and frustrate others. Fossum, a Norwegian, is perhaps best known for her crime fiction series featuring Inspector Konrad Sejer. Here she attempts something completely different and unusual.

As the book opens, a middle aged female writer whose name we never learn, is cowering behind her curtains one night, looking down her driveway at the long line of characters who are waiting for her to tell their stories. The weight of the burden the characters impose upon her is almost too much to bear and she turns to drink and pills to get her through the night.

On this night, though, she awakens, panicked, in the middle of the night to find a man in her room. One of her upcoming characters has jumped the line and invaded her bedroom. He insists that the writer tell his story now. The writer tries to explain that the man must wait his turn, but he's worried because the writer is getting older and is not taking very good care of herself. He's desperately afraid that she might die before getting to him and that his story will never be told.

Reluctantly, the woman agrees to his request, and the man comes to life on her computer as Alvar Eide. He's single, in his early forties, and works in an art gallery. He's a very quiet, mild-mannered man who has difficulty relating to other people. But his life is well-ordered and he is content with it. Then one bitterly cold afternoon a young female drug addict stumbles into the gallery in an effort to get warm and Alvar does something totally out of character. Rather than immediately insisting that she leave the gallery, he offers her a cup of coffee, and this simple act will change the course of his life.

As the story progresses, Alvar continues to periodically interrupt the writer. He is concerned about the way he is being portrayed; he fears for what might happen to him. The writer patiently explains that once things are set in motion, she has little or no control. She must follow the story wherever it leads her, and Alvar must accept the consequences. Alvar is not sure he likes this at all, but watching his progress and observing his interaction with his creator is a fascinating experience.

Writers often say that characters sometimes assume a life of their own and I suspect that this is a difficult thing to grasp for people who are not writers and who assume that writers have complete control of the stories they write and the characters they create. But while a writer might consciously plan out a book to the last detail, that carefully constructed plan often cannot account for the actions of a mischievous subconscious.

Perhaps only another writer who has experienced that moment when, seemingly out of nowhere a character says or does something that takes you completely by surprise, can really appreciate what Fossum has done here. Which is to say that I enjoyed this book immensely, but I can understand why others might not be as enthused about it as I am.

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