The Lover is a book for anyone who wants into get into the head of a discontented, guilty ex-lover. This psychological drama has all essential elements of a Scandi thriller with an unsettling mood, anxiety-inducing situations, unreliable witnesses, creepy thinking and equally creepy behaviour hidden behind the perfect façade of bourgeois society.
The stage is set with the introduction of four married couples living in an old house divided into four apartments in a sought after area of Oslo. A secure code entry system and a shared garden intensify the sense of privilege, status, closeness and community in true Norwegian style between eight adults and four children. They are civil, caring and friendly. Thin walls reveal some secrets and some conflicts but nothing sensational, just normal life.
The set up reminded me of a locked room mystery. I began to sense that something was off kilter. For several months the main character, Rikke, has been seeing her upstairs neighbour, Jørgen, despite having an apparently happy family life. She has an attentive and caring husband, Åsmund, a four-year-old son, Lucas, often lavished with too much attention, and a 13-year-old daughter Emma, who locks herself in a room and avoids chatting with her mother.
Secure jobs, safe routines, little inconveniences. Nothing that would warrant getting into an affair with a charismatic but unavailable man. Yet Rikke embarks on this adventure. Then Jørgen is found dead in his apartment at a time when she was very close by. Rikke panics. Overwhelmed now by guilt and fear of exposure, she begins to unravel, imagining some things and overanalysing others. She both wants and doesn’t want to tell Åsmund of the relationship but is aware that she cannot lie to him and to the police. Lack of sleep distorts reality and how she reacts. It’s exhausting.
The mood between neighbours changes, as accusations and memories of former insignificant events become huge. Comments and opinions shake once secure foundations. Nobody feels safe in their four walls as it becomes clear that the killer is among them. The police investigation focuses on their relationships, and also on a string of cat killings. Here, I must admit, I skipped several gruesome descriptions and won’t go further regarding this thread. Nevertheless, everybody was convinced that the human and animal crimes were connected.
Rikke is a complicated woman and not easy to warm to. Her experience of having a lover in her settled life comes via pages of a long explanatory email she sent to the police. The past interwoven with the present makes for uncomfortable reading, as some passages seem too long, too far-fetched, with Rikke constantly questioning her own actions. But I still wanted to find out more, to know who the killer was, to discover out how her family survived the ordeal of living below a crime scene.
Helene Flood sustained the pressure and tension throughout, and the translator Alison McCullough did a magnificent job bringing those lengthy winding sentences and equally long thoughts into English.