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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Stonecutter by Camilla Lackberg, 2012, * * * *

One of Sweden's most successful authors, Camilla Lackberg is already being hailed as Scandinavia's next big export.  The Stonecutter is an immense thriller, spread thick with autumnal chill and an astute exploration of a fragile small-town community.  Hemmed by forests and steely seas, the town of Fjallbacka broods with secrets and creaks with inter-generational tension - a winning choice of a stage on which to play out a murder.  The body of a young girl pulled up by a lobster-man is disturbing enough, but when the autopsy reveals that her lungs were full of bath water mixed with ashes, the story takes a turn for the harrowing.  As the police investigate, Lackberg presents a tapestry of characters, intricately stitched, each with their own hidden indiscretions, suspicions and grudges, as well as quieter struggles with grief, depression or estrangement. What is most impressive is the way Lackberg manages to give equal narrative heft to the mystery and to her characters' inner lives, without letting up on the fast-moving unfolding of events.  When the characters are well-drawn, this makes for compulsive reading.  When more superficial characters are given inner monologues, however, the narrative becomes heavy handed with key revelations standing out a little too starkly.  Attempts at psychological complexity have mixed results.  A young man with Asperger's syndrome is painfully stereotypical  while the slow, visceral revelation of the murderer's history is more convincing.  Told in fleeting flashbacks at the beginning of each chapter, this history draws inexorably closer to the present, showing just how poisonous deep-buried secrets can become.   By the time this novel concludes on a jarring note of violence, the wisdom of the old adage about one bad apple spoiling the whole bushel will be sadly proved all too true. 

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