There is a reason this Swedish novel rocketed to the top of Europe’s bestseller lists. It has everything—enormous wealth, inequality, immigration, teenage angst, drugs, sex, and death—but it also has whip-smart writing, the constraints of law, the quiet and unbreakable bonds of family. Entirely suitable for teens, this is a YA title worthy of the designation.
Told from the point of view of a young woman just out of high school, this story recounts how Maja awaited her trial on school shooting and multiple murder charges. Maja herself is silent. We only hear the voice inside her head. It is a legal thriller easily as good as America’s Scott Turow, John Grisham, Marcia Clark at the height of their powers.
MASSACRE AT DJURSHOLM UPPER SECONDARY SCHOOL - GIRL IN CUSTODYand
CLAES FAGERMAN MURDERED - SON’S GIRLFRIEND DEMAND: “HE MUST DIE!”We are inside the jail, inside Maja’s confused thoughts as she contemplates her imprisonment, and remembers moments in her past which illuminate her present. Readers are skeptical of any reason which seeks absolution for such a heinous crime. Maja’s lawyer is one of the most famous in Sweden, taking unpopular, unwinnable cases. Our emotions seesaw between a kind of sympathy for an ordinary teen and the extraordinary circumstances of her imprisonment.
We wrestle with big issues like the statement that “the truth is whatever we choose to believe,” and “innocence until prove guilty.” And the voice of Maja is piquant and high-school observant:
“…not a single person has ever believed that Mom is the person she pretends to be. But she keeps pretending anyway. And for the most part, people are polite about it and leave her alone…Dad’s money is hardly even fifteen minutes old. And he doesn’t have enough of it to compensate…he thinks boarding school taught him what it takes to fit in, what he has to do for high-class people to think he's one of them. He’s wrong, of course.”We are talking about the rich and the ultra rich. That in itself is an interesting perspective on high school life in Sweden: yacht trips in the Mediterranean, weekend jaunts to southern islands, parties that bring in musicians and YouTube specialists from America, multiple homes, corporate planes…you get the picture. But there is also an immigrant community in the town and the wealth discrepancy is radical. We have so many dichotomies examined in this novel between parents & youth, wealth & the lack of it, white & dark skins to name a few.
But what is best about this drama are the legal arguments. First we hear the prosecutor do her best to lay out the case against the defendant. That, and the newspapers give the court of public opinion plenty to work with until the defense can present a few counter-arguments in the weeks that follow. In the defense, we get a careful step-by-step unpicking of the prosecutor’s almost airtight case for murder. It is masterful.
Maja is uniquely well-off and privileged, but is she uniquely evil? Statistically, one could argue it is unlikely. But so much more is uncovered in the course of the trial that we cannot break away. What would cause a well-educated woman of privilege to behave in this way?
Giolito places an articulate corporate American PhD and editor-in-chief of a prestigious business publication in the position of giving a talk before the high school Maja attends, and she explicates the argument America is undergoing right now, played out by our political parties wrangling over tax policy.
“We must be cautious about the social contract. Both parties must uphold their side of the agreement. We must have comprehensible equity. It is not fair if the welfare system is bankrolled by low- and middle-income earners. If large corporations pay less in taxes than their small- and medium-size colleagues, that is not what the social contract looks like…”I don’t want to take the fun out of this spectacular book for you. Academics, teachers, high school students, lawyers, ordinary citizens will all find this beautifully-written and -translated novel a page-turner.
This is Malin Persson Giolito’s English language debut. Let’s show her American gratitude and support so we can get all her novels published here. Giolito has worked as a lawyer and for the European Commission in Brussels, where she lives with her husband and three daughters. She has entered the ranks of the best legal thriller writers working today. The translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles is exceptional. Published by Other Press.
An excellent bookreporter.com interview explains the backstory behind this book.
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