I was up last night until three AM. Reading. Reading in that way you do when a book grabs hold of you and won’t let you go. I have another forty pages of Asa Larsson’s The Second Deadly Sin, about a series of remote murders past and present that appeared to begin with the discovery of a bone in a bear’s belly and an unrelated sexually-tinged murder of an easy grandmother. I have another forty pages because I finally put the book aside, saving the end like ice cream for later.
Last night, as my husband slept and my Russian Blue Valentino flopped at my feet, snorkling and snoring, I folded a page. It had nothing to do with murder. Two Swedish women sat across from each other at a table, one an investigating prosecutor in her thirties, Rebecka, on unofficial business and the other, Maja, a sixty-something silver-haired beauty apparently nursing her terminally ill mother. Surrounded by silence, Maja talks about being an old woman but feeling like a child inside.
I remember my own grandmother, Eva, in her eighties pulling the flesh on her arm and letting it slowly fall back. It lacked elasticity. She looked at me and said: I don’t feel old, but look at that.
And, so, in the middle of this investigation — bears, death by pitchfork, suicide — one relatively older woman appears to open up to a younger one, Both fictional women, we discover, share mommy-abandonment issues. And the older one, Maja, says to the younger one, Rebecka, the protagonist, that inside Maja is still a little girl that wants something from her dying mother before she goes.
Rebecka simply asks, “What?”
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And, in the quiet, in that moment, I wonder what I would want my own mother to say, finally, to set me free. Or if, through writing, I have already largely set myself free and anything that she could say would be anticlimactic.Maja, with her thousands of silver braids, sexy at sixty, then says this:
“Oh, nothing much. ‘I’m sorry,’ perhaps. Or that she loves me and is proud of me. Or maybe: ‘I understand that it wasn’t so easy for you.’ You know. It’s so ironic. she left me and moved away when I was twelve years old because she had found a man who said: ‘No children.” God, but I pleaded and promised that I wouldn’t cause any trouble. But she…”
It is the middle of the night at my house, and these women are discussing the difference between what they want from their personal ties, family ties, and what they hope for. They sit around a table in a remote country house surrounded by a buffering snow. They slip and slide in an intimate discussion that moves to love, general and specific, past and present. They sit in silence, comfortably and the section ends with the narration: “Dead women, mothers, grandmothers — all of them sat down on the empty chairs around the table.”
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And, then, after a section break within the chapter, writer Larsson drops in a little wedge of plot that is absolutely chilling. It’s as if she was lulling you to sleep with emotional depth, with the way we live in the tangles of our heads and hearts, at cross purposes, looking backwards, living forwards. Even our most intimate relations are strangers in some way — we do not know the voiceover that runs in their minds. My mother does not know me. How can I claim to really know my daughter as an individual separate from me?
This is where Larsson leaves me at three in the morning. And this is why I read good Scandinavian mystery fiction.While the whodunit and why forces us forward, the mystery of identity and the way that the past imprints the present deepen our understanding of the human condition.