Review: THE CALLER by Karin Fossum

I’m almost unwilling to admit that I found THE CALLER unsettling. Not because I’m worried you’ll think I’m a wuss (I am but I don’t care that you know it) but because you’ll think that’s a derogatory thing to say about the book and I don’t mean it to sound that way. Because I think it’s a terrific book, even if extremely sad and…unsettling…in the way it exposes the fragility of the lives we create for ourselves. The subject matter is too dark to for me to say I enjoyed it, but it has gotten under my skin in a way that few books do and I absolutely loved it.

It opens by introducing us to Lily Sundelin who has the perfect life in her small Norwegian town. Her gorgeous baby Margrete is asleep in a pram under a tree in their back yard and she is cooking a favoured meal to share with her much-loved husband when he comes home from work. After their relaxed meal she goes to bring Margrete inside and finds her covered in blood. After rushing to the hospital and fearing the worst they learn that Margrete is fine; the blood was not hers. And while you’d think such an outcome would be cause for rejoicing Fossum takes the story in a less obvious direction, depicting a family that fractures due to the loss of intangible things like security and certainty and the understanding of each person’s role in the family.

We learn early on who is responsible for the prank and this is where one of the book’s many strengths shines through. Because while feeling sympathetic towards the Sundelin family and the prankster’s subsequent victims I felt equally sorry for the perpetrator of the increasingly malicious pranks (which include things like publishing a death notice for an elderly lady who is still alive). He is a teenager who has never known the unquestioning, blind love of a parent that is, or should be, the birthright of every child. His father is unknown, his mother a cruel drunk who abandoned her maternal responsibilities many years ago and while not excusing the boy’s behaviour this situation certainly explains it. Like Konrad Sejer, the inspector assigned to the case, I couldn’t help but wonder how different the boy’s life would have been if he’d ever known the feeling of being loved and protected.

Sejer does not play a huge role in this book although the depiction of an ageing man reflecting on his life, his sadnesses and his joys is thoughtful and drew me into his world. I particularly liked the juxtaposition of the life of Sejer’s much-loved grandson with the life of Johnny, the perpetrator of the vicious pranks, and the way it demonstrated the difference that love can make to lives that start out badly. But the real stars of this book are the various victims of Johnny’s pranks who all feel like very realistic characters to me and their range of reactions to their treatment is fascinating. You might be pleased to know that at least one, a young girl, is not cowed or unduly traumatised by what happens to her which probably says something about the resilience of the young (at least those who are loved and wanted).

THE CALLER is beautifully written (for which at least some of the credit must go to translator K.E. Semmel), full of compelling characters, has a deliciously ambiguous ending and is a superb study of the fragility of life. As Sejer muses towards the end of the novel when one of the pranks results in an unexpected and horrific outcome: What life has in store for some of us. Imagine if we knew.

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THE CALLER has been reviewed at Euro Crime, Petrona and Yet Another Crime Fiction BLog

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 5/5
Translator K.E. Semmel
Publisher Harvill Secker [2011]
ISBN/ASIN 9781846553936
Length 296 pages
Format trade paperback
Book Series #8 in the Inspector Sejer series to have been translated into English.
Source I borrowed it from the library
Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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15 thoughts on “Review: THE CALLER by Karin Fossum

  1. Bernadette – What a fantastic review, and I’m so glad you thought this book was the “stay with you” kind of unsettling. There are some books like that, that just haunt one, aren’t there? And it’s to Fossum’s credit that she can depict a broken life without being maudlin about it.

  2. I often have a similar reaction to Patricia Highsmith’s work – while she could create fascinating plots it is her ability to transport you into the mindset of damaged people that I genuinely admire – and yet it is not somewhere you are particularly going to want to visit with any great enthusiasm without steeling yourself a bit first. Books involving children are, for me, always a particular case apart – just the other day I was chatting with a colleague at work who has a 1-year-okd who loves reading ‘krimis’ (she’s part German) who suddenly realised that anxiety over the fate of young people seemed to feature in a lot of modern crime fiction and that understandably she was just not prepared to go there anymore. Thanks for pointing out that not all the characters end up brutalised at the end, but I suspect I’ll probably give this one a miss or anyway try one of Fossum’s earlier books instead.

    • I can certainly understand how any parent, especially a new one, would want to avoid books in which children and young people are traumatised – and to be honest I haven’t discussed the worst incidence of it that appears in this book because it takes place very late into the story and is truly heart-breaking.

      It’s been a long time since I read any of Patricia Highsmith’s books but I shall add something to my list for when I’m looking for a classic read.

  3. I freely admit to being a wuss too, but I think this book sounds worth the teeth-clenching fright. I love a good character study.

  4. I agree with you that this book is unsettling. Karin Fossum has a (unique?) talent of writing about normal events – domestic minutiae and so on – conveying an air of menace and tension, for no discernible reason. Some of her books seem rather too like fables to me but like you I enjoyed this one very much, particularly the character of that young girl who one feels could teach Seger and co a thing or two. I wonder if Fossum has thought of making her a detective in a future book?! Another Fossum trademark here is the way she conveys sadness- in particular the story of the father/son who go hiking. I am not sure if she is really that much like Highsmith – Highsmith was more into the warped side of human nature, but in a more harsh and morally ambivalent way than Fossum? But like you, it is a very long time since I read any (though I do remember on about the fourth Ripley book thinking that the author had really run out of steam as far as he was concerned). I also remember how much better the book of Strangers on a Train is than the film version.

  5. If brutality happens to children, I’m out. The Boy in the Suitcase was my limit. Any more harm to little ones and I’m out of there. Also, part of Michael Connelly’s brilliant new book The Drop is so disturbing about the worst violence against children that I had to skip some of it. So this may be a pass.

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