Review of The Caller by Karin Fossum

Karin Fossum is a quietly disturbing storyteller who sets her stories in ordinary small Norwegian communities where everything seems wholesome and well-0rdered but, when a crime is committed and the gentle, wise detective Konrad Sejer comes to sort it out with his sidekick, Jacob Skarre, we realize that surface is deceptive, that in fact the mild-mannered and almost boringly normal residents have hidden depths and dark secrets. Though perhaps “secrets” is the wrong word. A lot of what’s wrong is perfectly visible; it’s just that people prefer to think their community is a better place than it really is.

In this case, a happy couple, having a pleasant meal together, assume their infant daughter is quite safe in her baby buggy parked in the back yard. (The Scandinavian practice of leaving babies outdoors was in the news in the US a few years ago when a couple left their infant parked on a sidewalk outside a restaurant in New York; worried citizens called the police, who charged the surprised couple with child endangerment. In this case, though it seems less reckless than leaving a child alone in a city, the American reader is torn between “something awful is going to happen” and “are they crazy?”) When they finally begin to think it’s time they brought the child indoors, they are horrified to find her covered in blood. After a frantic race to the hospital they learn it’s not her blood. Someone has played a cruel hoax, the first of many.

It’s a well-told story, and thought provoking (though there is some violence so awful that it makes me hesitate to recommend the book unreservedly). We get to see how the hoaxes affect their victims, including the strain it puts on the young married couple in the opening scenes. We learn who is likely responsible for them, and get a sense of how it gives an unhappy teenager with a difficult life a sense of power and control. The best character in the story, a girl with short red hair who shouts insults at passers by and notices everything, breaks out of this mold by being thoroughly aware, thoroughly herself, and instinctively good without being a goody two-shoes.

Fossum takes rather ordinary materials and, when putting them under a magnifying glass, brings out a lot of emotional texture and nuance that lends her books a kind of suspense that isn’t matched by thrillers with demonic killers and high body counts. Though acted out on a small stage and with few words, the impact is amplified. In part, it is the social pressure to support a communal appearance of normality and happiness that works against people taking responsibility for looking closer at things that really aren’t healthy in the community. And while evil is small-scale and human, truly awful things can grow out of a moment’s impulse.

Sejer is an unusual character in that he is thoroughly decent, a deeply kind and peaceful man, who acts more like a physician trying to heal a community than a crime fighter matching wits with villains. What Fossum finds so fascinating isn’t how evil people can be; it’s the way that small holes deliberately torn in the social fabric of a community can widen and unravel in ways that nobody can predict.

Not long ago, Maxine Clarke said something in a comment once that I remembered when reading this book – that there is something “fabular” about Fossum’s books, and I felt that very strongly here, particularly in the opening scene when an idyllically happy couple live in a perfect little house beside a deep dark wood  . . . and that fairy tale pattern is repeated later. It’s never a good sign in Fossum’s books when the language grows simple and the primary colors a bit too bright:

The mother was in the kitchen. She couldn’t see the pram through the window, but she wasn’t concerned about her sleeping baby, not for an instant.

Pottering about thoroughly content, she was light as a ballerina on her feet, not a single worry in her heart. She had everything a woman could dream of: beauty, health, and love. A husband, a child, a home and garden with rhododendrons and lush flowers. She held life in the palm of her hand.

There’s something almost vengeful in the way Fossum describes this image that is as glossy and false as an Ikea advertisement, as if contentment is for suckers. Her touch was a bit lighter in earlier books, the stories somewhat less schematic. It’s funny, because the parts that read like a fable seem a bit clumsy in contrast to the psychological nuance and acute observation of other parts of the book.

Maxine has also reviewed this book at Petrona, and so has Bernadette at Reactions to Reading, the review that made me pick the book out of my TBR pile, in fact.

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6 thoughts on “Review of The Caller by Karin Fossum

  1. I know I shouldn’t judge books by their covers but I adore your version of the cover…fits in well with the ‘fabular’ tag too – much better than the boring cover we got here in Oz.

    I have only read Fossum’s first book and this one and I have rated them both 5 stars so something about her particular way of story telling obviously appeals to me though I can’t quite put my finger on what that something is. Perhaps I just like the notion of normal people having their lives shattered for no good reason whatsoever – as you say so much more frightening and realistic than the slasher novels of which there are so many.

    On the issue of leaving one’s baby outside unattended my Australian brother and his American wife came their closest to divorcing over this issue when my brother once left their first baby outside a store in their Chicago suburb for about 15 minutes – when my sister-in-law heard about this atrocity she packed her bags and went home to her father thinking my brother was clearly going to be an appalling parent. In the end they managed to come to an agreement (i.e. he would never do it again and she would acknowledge that he was just engaging in something that he had seen done here a million times rather than being the worst kind of neglectful parent on earth). Cultural differences make the world a fascinating place eh?

  2. Great review, and thank you for the mention. I think your phrase “Quietly vengeful” summarises this author very well.

    On leaving babies in prams, I personally would not leave a baby unattended in a pram outside a shop or anywhere in a public place, however inconvenient, but in this case, they were simply leaving the baby in their back garden, which I think is wholly different.

    I think your point about how this author builds up suspense and a sense of overwhelming doom is very good. At the end of the post you give an example of this “too good to be true” style of prose and now I think about it, the author does use this device to very good effect – in this particular book, in the descriptions of the family life of the parents of the boy who disappears on a walk; in the book about the boy who goes out on his bike; and in The Indian Bride, when we just know something bad is going to happen to that bride, but can’t see how or where it is going to come from. Sometimes, Fossum fools us by not carrying through with a bad outcome, which adds to the suspense and sense of unease.

  3. Thanks, Maxine – and I agree, Fossum plays with our expectations and that is so disarming. You think you know how something will play out and then she switches it up. Those little mordant notes she plays at the end of her books can also be deeply unsettling, particularly for a genre that many read for a sense of resolution.

    I agree that back gardens should be an extension of the home – and even Americans wouldn’t be inclined to accuse parents of child neglect for this, but we’ve gotten weirdly over-protective of children and fearful of unlikely stranger crimes. (There’s a whole “free range kids” movement arguing that over-protection is bad for child development.) Since crime fiction tends to explore things that make us anxious, it might be an interesting site for mapping cultural anxiety and how we respond to it.

    Another thing that Fossum does well is a little shell game – taking a threat we worry about and things that are ordinary, then shuffling them so as we keep trying to track the threat, we are surprised when she lifts up the non-threatening shell and that’s where the danger is. She makes us question the way we frame our fears and assign threat.

  4. Fully agree, Barbara. Also, I agree with Bernadette that the cover of this edition is perfect.

    I understand about the children, I do sort of follow the various cases and arguments that go on in the USA (mainly). Of course cases like the Madeline McCann case are extremely rare, but they do encourage us never to let children out of our (parents’) or child-carers’ sight. I know I was like this until my children were about 10 where their school encouraged us (parents) to let them walk to school on their own (just a couple of blocks). And in retrospect I am glad that I gave up so much personal liberty to ensure their safety, because……you never know…….as Fossum so effectively plays on these primeval separation fears in her novel.

  5. It is interesting that Karin always writes about characters on the fringe of society. And I love Barbara’s comment about Fossum’s writing. I can thoroughly recommend all fo her books. They are not like a Nesbø thriller with complicated twists and turns but are remarkable for their insight into the psyche of the characters. She does certainly tap into the fears of the everyday citizen. Can’t wait to get hold of this one. And incidentally, it is not a habit of Australians to leave their babies outside, that is something that is definitely Scandinavian, mostly Danish customs. I still can’t get my head around that one….

  6. Pingback: Review: The Caller by Karin Fossum | The Game's Afoot

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