- - Wednesday, October 7, 2015



By Karin Fossum

Houghton Mifflin, $24, 240 pages

It is a tragedy when a 16-month-old boy drowns when he scrambles from his home and falls into a pond outside. His mother Carmen is hysterical in her weeping, his father Nikolai is taciturn and oddly bitter.

And veteran Police Inspector Konrad Sejer cannot explain why he is uneasy as he assembles the facts of what is ostensibly another sad accident. Carmen, the distraught mother, weeps constantly as she explains how she had left little Tommy playing on the floor while she was doing laundry in the adjoining bathroom. It was not until she realized he was not in the house that she rushed out to the pond and found him floating there, dead.

Sejer sees her as “a child with a child” yet he reflects, “She was now very focused and calm as though she was finally in control of her difficult situation. But her voice was monotonous and he knew that this detail could signal a distance. That she was keeping something terrible at a distance, which she simply couldn’t face.”

Norwegian author Karin Fossum is an expert at injecting the sinister into the mundane and she has outdone herself in this case. In her hands a beautiful monster emerges in Carmen, the 19-year-old mother who won’t stop crying and becomes aggressive at any suggestion that this was not just a terrible accident. To further complicate the situation, Carmen has epilepsy. She explains repeatedly that little Tommy had just begun to walk and was scrambling all over the house. She was doing laundry when she realized he was no longer in the living room and when she reached the pond outside, it was too late. It would be difficult to improve on the author’s portrayal of Carmen and her probing of the lovely face surrounded by platinum hair and illuminated by huge tear-filled eyes.

What also troubles Inspector Sejer is that Carmen cries not only constantly but too much. He struggles with the impression that she is overreaching as he quietly watches and listens and assembles the facts of this family sorrow.

And there has to be taken into consideration the fact that little Tommy had Down’s syndrome. His mother insists that he was “very healthy” and denies she was upset by the baby’s condition. With such an adventurous little boy, she found it hard to keep up with him as he crawled around the house, she declares. However, her friends recall her distress at Tommy’s appearance when he was born.

Moreover, Carmen’s husband, Nikolai, is another story and tells another story. He was genuinely devoted to his son and is horrified when he finds his wife giving away the child’s baby clothes and moving his cot to the cellar while pointing out that they can have another one soon. Sejer is convinced of Nikolai’s grief and depression, which deepens with time. This comes in stark contrast to Carmen’s almost giddy, emotional high. She clings to her devoted father who comforts and consoles her, giving her work in his restaurant and a gift of a little red diary in which she can confide her thoughts.

The plot is as chilling as Carmen is and as basic in its construction. The author leaves her readers in little doubt as to what the young mother did to her toddler. A major clue proves to be the soapy water of a bathtub found in his lungs instead of the dark scum that filled the pond. Yet even Inspector Sejer, himself recovering from a serious illness, sees no hope that Carmen will be convicted if and when she faces a trial. Nikolai despairs to the point of suicide and in a flash of irony, Carmen is not only at once married again but pregnant again and making sure there are tests on the baby’s health. She is exuberant.

The ending of the book cannot be revealed without ruining its impact, but it is the kind of quiet, cold climax to be expected from Ms. Fossum, and she does not disappoint.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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