Friday, 21 March 2008

Lang by Kjell Westö

Lang by Kjell Westö was published in 2005 for English readers and his is first crime/suspend novel. Kjell is a Swedish speaking Finlander author of several novels and books of poetry since 1986. Lang is psychological mystery with its polar opposite being Roseanna which is a Police Procedural story by the husband-and-wife writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. In Lang a crime is committed but the focus is on the why and its consequences rather then on its detection. The story is driven by the question what redemption is possible if your life is driven by fame and success rather then by love.

Lang is the host of Finland’s premier chat show-think Michael Parkinson crossed with Jeremy Paxman and started his rise to the top of the cultural heights by being a successful highbrow novelist. But his second marriage has just failed, and his son from his first is on drugs. He hasn’t written in over ten years and his TV ratings are slipping as viewers switch to new Friday night formats such as Big Brother and How to be a Millionaire. Worse still, he is in is 40’s going grey and fading physically.

A chance encounter with Sarita in a bar starts an obsessive lust affair complicated further which it becomes clear that she is equally locked in an unhealthy relationship with the violent father of her son. Yet it’s like a drug that initially gives the high of a revitalised career but then destroys it as the addicts needs to have more of what he craves leads to murder…but also redemption.

The story is not told by Lang but his best friend who is contacted in the opening scene for a spade to burry the body. Lang browbeats him to get the spade but when arrested keeps his friends involvement secret. The story then unfolds with the friend trying to discuss and write up Lang’s version which we gradually see is more his then Lang’s. We lean more about their friendship and Lang’s abuse of it and how he neglects his mentally ill sister. It also becomes clear that whilst Lang is clearly a charming but nasty piece of work, his friend and Sarita are not merely victims as they are playing their own games. Even Saritia’s violent drug-seller ex husband has more redeeming qualities then first appearances would suggest.

So does it work? Well don’t expect a nice simple bad-guy versus good-guy as nothing is easy or simply resolved and you are left with perhaps more questions then answers. It rings psychologically true and the writing and structure works well with memorable characters that haunt you even when you are not sure if you enjoyed or loved the story. Strongly recommended.

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