Book review: Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito
Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

When an 18-year-old girl is charged with involvement in a Stockholm school massacre, a jury must decide if she is a victim demonised by the media… or truly a cold-blooded killer.

Step into the courtroom – and a riveting reading experience – as Swedish author Malin Persson Giolito bewitches, bothers and bewilders us with her extraordinary English-language debut novel, a bleak, absorbing exploration of the vast changes that have swept through Europe’s social order during the last decade.

Named the Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year by the Swedish Crime Writers Academy, Quicksand, incisively and intelligently translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, is a gripping tale of secrets, resentment, multiculturalism and mass murder.

What sets out as a routine courtroom procedural, featuring a teenager charged with shooting her boyfriend and best friend in a massacre at a high school in Stockholm’s wealthiest suburb, rapidly becomes a coruscating study of the dangerous chasms in contemporary Swedish society.

The air was hazy and grey with gun smoke after the school massacre which left Sweden in shock. Everyone in the classroom was dead when the police arrived… except Maja Norberg. The girl who supposedly came from a good home survived without even a bruise on her body.

She has spent nine excruciating months in jail, awaiting trial for a mass murder whose victims included her boyfriend Sebastian Fagerman, son of Sweden’s richest man, and her best friend Amanda.

Maja is accused of shooting classmates in a pact with her rich, calculating boyfriend and now the time has come for her to enter the courtroom. By her side is her smooth-talking and very expensive lawyer Peder Sander. ‘I’m on your side,’ he has told her but ‘the truth,’ reflects Maja, ‘is not something we talk about.’

Also sitting nearby are her parents… her busy, multitasking mother ‘who does not have sufficient interest’ in her daughter, and her ‘mad, furious’ father, constantly sniping at everything from neighbours and power bills to immigration officers and French waiters.

Soon the jury must decide if Maja – a seemingly normal teenager, popular, privileged, and a top student – was an innocent caught up in the middle of a terrible tragedy, or the merciless killer who has already been found guilty by the country’s press and public.

Told through the eyes, thoughts and testimony of the often unpredictable and peevish Maja, her provocative narrative moves at a rapid pace, alternating between her cell as she awaits trial, the unfolding of the case in the courtroom, and memories of her jet-setting life with wealthy boyfriend Sebastian.

Giolito, who has worked as a lawyer and an official for the European Commission in Brussels, is a powerful writer… her brutally honest and searing account exposes the everyday racism faced by refugees in Europe and the tensions that simmer below even the most liberal of societies like Sweden.

On a more intimate level, Maja’s voice perfectly captures all the uncertainties and insecurities of adolescence while her predicament raises important questions about the nature of love, the disastrous side effects of guilt, and the function of justice.

Haunting, shocking, tense and sometimes discomfiting, this is a classic page-turner with a compelling social conscience.

(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £12.99)