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BOOK REVIEW

‘Shame’: guilt grown large

By Ed Siegel
Globe Correspondent / January 30, 2010

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Neither of the two main characters in Swedish author Karin Alvtegen’s “Shame,’’ her latest mystery novel to be released in America, appears to have actually committed a crime or been victimized by one. But they’re so monumentally guilt-ridden about their roles in the deaths of family members that they walk around with the weight of the world on their shoulders.

One, Maj-Britt, has let that weight grow, literally, to epic proportions, to the point where she’ll suffocate if she sleeps lying down. It becomes clear that her overeating was triggered by her sense that she was at least partially responsible for the death of her daughter.

The other, Monika, a successful and attractive doctor, is ready to throw her whole life away after a colleague who takes her place in a car returning from a conference is killed in a subsequent crash. But that’s only part of her story. We learn fairly quickly that Monika also suffers because she feels responsible for a fire that killed her brother.

The chapters alternate between the two stories - Monika trying to atone for both her brother’s and her colleague’s death; the house-bound Maj-Britt making life a misery for the welfare workers trying to help her. As they descend further into depression and their wacko plans to redeem their guilt - or shame - it’s obvious that this isn’t Stieg Larsson territory. The characters in that Swedish writer’s mysteries might not be advertisements for mental health, but their abnormalities seem more, well, normal.

Alvtegen’s novels certainly aren’t for fans of traditional mysteries with tidy endings. Like Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell, Alvtegen is more concerned with what motivates people to behave badly than with what the retribution will be for that bad behavior. “Shame’’ shares something else with a handful of Highsmith’s and Rendell’s genre-busting novels - we’re never quite sure whether a prosecutable crime has been committed by them until the end.

Because Alvtegen is so interested in character development she spends a good deal of time exploring how her characters’ personal histories shaped them and the bizarre behaviors that those experiences continue to foster. Maj-Britt, for example, is the daughter of religious lunatics who disown and damn her for marrying a nonfanatic. When their baby is born blind she becomes convinced that God has punished her.

Now you might well ask why you’d want to spend any time in Maj-Britt’s or Monika’s company. Alvtegen spends far too much time letting them chew the cud of their shame. “We get it,’’ you want to say, “stop telling us how miserable they are and get on with the story.’’

Nevertheless, “Shame’’ has its own rewards. The psychological games that the two characters play in both attracting and repelling other people have the shock of recognition. Maybe they’re not so abnormal after all? Maybe we’re not so normal? Alvtegen also dabbles in social criticism - how the media, as an example, add to the sense of paranoia about the world, “a general feeling of hopelessness’’; how religion adds to the woes of believers instead of alleviating them.

It’s a pretty smart package, all in all. By the end of this taut psychological thriller, the two characters meet, and Alvtegen offers each a way out of her misery that doesn’t feel tacked on. Will they have the insight, ultimately, to take that road? That would be telling.

While there is much to admire in “Shame,’’ Alvtegen’s prose can be overly stark - which, one suspects, is not the fault of translator Steven T. Murray. Despite that, Alvtegen, like Highsmith, mostly makes a virtue of her conciseness. After all you wouldn’t want anything to interfere with how close to the bone she operates.

Freelance writer Ed Siegel can be reached at esiegel122@comcast.net.

SHAME By Karin Alvtegen

Felony & Mayhem, 304 pp., paperback, $14.95