Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis. The Boy in the Suitcase (New York: Soho Press , 2011).

The Boy in the Suitcase is very much about women and motherhood. The plot, narrative interests and even the style of writing have qualities associated with the female. It is weak on plot but full of female angst. The third person narrative is tight – it comes in small chapters with changing perspectives. There are no digressions; the characters’ backstories are given only to the extent that they serve the purposes of the narrative, which sticks well to the mystery of the boy in the suitcase. The plot does not have many twists and the solution to the mystery is obvious (there are some revealing clues at the very beginning).

The novel came out in Denmark in 2008. Two more in the series have followed: Invisible Murder (2010, in English 2012), Death of a Nightingale (2013), and the authors are working on the fourth one.  After its translation into English by Lene Kaaberbøl in 2011, The Boy in the Suitcase became an international bestseller with the inevitable comparisons to Stieg Larsson. Violence against women and their victimization is something The Boy in the Suitcase shares with the Millennium-trilogy. The world according to Kaaberbøl and Friis is not a pleasant place for women. Nina Borg, their protagonist, has been described as a ‘milder’ version of Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. Borg is “Thin as a boy, with very short dark hair” (p74). She is androgynous and has slightly autistic tendencies. The villain of the piece calls her “the boy-bitch” (pp.74, 207).

Nina leads “a remarkably efficient one-woman crusade to save the world.” (p169). Having worked in the “various global hotspots” (p169), she is now employed at a Red Cross centre for refugees and part of an underground “network” of volunteers helping illegal immigrants. This choice of occupation gives the authors ready access to the dirty underbelly of society. Nina is not part of the official state apparatus. This is important: it is essential for the plot of the novel that Nina does not seek assistance from the authorities (the police or the social services), otherwise the story of The Boy in the Suitcase would be very short and not very exciting. 

This is a shortcoming in the plot. We are asked to accept Nina’s conviction that she cannot seek help in solving the mystery. To achieve this, also Nina’s volunteer “network” has to vanish. Her only contact with the network, “Peter,” is away on holiday (p70). Nina has to refuse support from her boss and cannot rely on her husband: “If you don’t want anybody’s help, Nina, you won’t get it.” (p225) Nina’s insistence on isolation is contrived (she does not even report her friend’s murder, p131).

The actual threat of violence in the story is entirely shouldered by Jučas, a gigantic Lithuanian with “the rage” (pp,72, 265). The real threat of violence and horror in the novel is created largely from the imaginations of the two women Sigita and Nina. They keep imagining the worst possible fate for the boy (pp87, 95,149,212, 214, 239). This adds darkness to the narrative, but not suspense. It does not work, because paedophilia, slavery and the misery of orphan refugees become hypothetical when we know that the boy both has a loving mother looking for him and a competent nurse caring for him. The plot is really not about children going missing (this is why the reference to “the little English girl who disappeared” [p188] sounds an awkward note). The Boy in the Suitcase is about maternal guilt.

The authors’ portrait of the Danish society is outright scary. Denmark and its people are depicted as uncaring, conformist and mean. Nina’s view of her home country is bleak: “… if only she would let herself believe what no one else seemed to have any trouble believing: that Denmark was a safe haven for the broken human lives that washed up on its shores.” (p204). Nina will not even take the boy to the Red Cross refugee centre: “I am not letting them take him to the camps. … Children vanish from them almost every day.” (p55)

An illustrative moment in the narrative comes when Nina leaves the little boy in her car while she goes shopping. In public, Nina has to pretend to be the boy’s mother (p41), when she leaves the boy sleeping in the back seat, she puts on a show for any passers-by: “Mama will be back in a jiffy.” (p89) In the shop, Nina is nervous, she checks on the car: “No signs of unusual activity. No collection of worried onlookers, no curious faces.” (p90) After shopping she hurries back: 

“She had been gone for sixteen minutes now, and she suddenly knew that sixteen minutes was too long. She had the horrible sensation that time, vitally important time, had once again slipped through her fingers, and she headed for the Fiat at a near-run.” (p91)

There is “A woman with a thumb-sucking toddler in a stroller” by Nina’s car, and she launches into a scathing tirade about the boy being left alone: “I simply don’t understand how someone like you can call herself a mother” (p93). Nina gives a weak excuse: “I had promised him an ice cream cone, and there was a line at the check-out” (p92).

This scene of pram-rage shows children as a source of anxiety and guilt. It also shows Danes (Danish mothers in particular) as authoritarian fanatics. The scene further illustrates how tension is created in the narrative simply by making the characters nervous and alarmed. The incident has no bearing on the overall plot of the story, there is no threat present beyond social peer pressure, and yet Nina Borg is teetering on the verge of panic. Even the hint that Nina’s unreasonable level of anxiety stems from some past experience (“time … had once again slipped through her fingers” – my italics) does not convincingly explain why she should be so very agitated. 

Finally, as an aside, this scene provides an example of the sometimes awkward translation. “I had promised him an ice cream cone,” might be more natural without the word “cone.” Elsewhere in the book, a “bistro pot” is used for making coffee (pp164, 200). I have never heard of one, perhaps it is something like a cafétiere. The book is translated with a distinctly American slant, appropriate for its American publisher (hence the “stroller”).

This is where the female qualities start to bubble up in the narrative. Children are a source of immense anxiety: they need to be saved and protected. And children are a source crippling guilt when the women fail to save and protect them. Sigita, the little boy’s mother kneels in a church:

“But when she looked up at the image of the Holy Virgin, she could no longer hold it back. The Madonna cradled the Baby Jesus tenderly, her face aglow with love. And Sigita fell to her knees on the cold flag stones and wept helplessly, hard involuntary sobs that echoed harshly under the vaulted ceilings. Esu kaltas. Esu labai kaltas.” (p64) The last words translated as “I am guilty. I am very guilty.” (p63)

Real mothers fail to reach the perfection of motherhood embodied in Virgin Mary.

No woman in this narrative can resist “the appeal to the maternal instinct” (p143). Even the villain’s girlfriend (too old at thirty-six to have a family of her own? P15) and the street-wise prostitutes of Copenhagen have a soft spot for the lost, little boy. This is another instance of the contrived plot set-up: Nina has to seek a translator among Copenhagen’s East European sex-workers, because she cannot possibly approach the authorities.

The anxiety of the female characters is directly expressed by their bodies. Whether it is a female quality to feel strong emotions in your belly (proximity to the womb? see p150) or whether experiencing the world through your stomach is a Danish thing (they are famous for their cuisine), The Boy in the Suitcase is saturated with gut-feelings: “Nina’s stomach dropped,” (p89) “his stomach became a small, rock-solid lump (p117),”she missed him so much it made … her abdomen ache (p123), “coffee turned into acid in his stomach” (p171), “Nina felt a new warm sense of relief spreading in her abdomen” (p212), “Nina felt a shudder deep in her abdomen (p215),”The accusation hit Sigita like a hardball to the stomach.” (p222) Nina has “a melting hot sensation somewhere behind her midriff.” (p237), “A smooth, warm feeling of serenity flowed from her diaphragm” (p246), “A strange flickering feeling of happiness settled in her stomach,” (p254), “the fury that was growing in her belly” (p280), “a pounding shock went through his diaphragm” (p282) There is much “nausea” too (pp43, 105, 134, 279, 280), not to mention all the other bodily sensations involving ears, heart, skin and hands.

In addition to the character of Jučas in the plot, the authors’ have two main strategies for creating suspense in the narrative. The first strategy is to have their characters imagine horrible and threatening things, whether it is the fate of lost children or the inability of authorities to keep children safe. The second strategy is to depict the characters as agitated and describe the physical symptoms resulting from strong emotional states.

While mothers experience anxiety and guilt for failing to protect their children, everyone else seems to suffer from an equivalent anxiety about families. Even Jučas has a reason for his rage (p266) and dreams of a family with children (pp. 8, 289). One can argue that the tragic events in The Boy in the Suitcase are the result of Jučas and Jan’s misguided attempts to achieve family life. Ironically, Morten and Nina, who do have a family, find that it is not enough. Nina is driven to ignore her own children while she goes out to save others’ and Morten dreams of expeditions to Greenland and Svalbard (p167). In this story, which is all about a desperate longing for a family, Morten’s words provide a sober reality-check: “It wasn’t that he didn’t want all this, the children and the flat …  He just wished he could have the other things as well.” (p168). Family according to The Boy in the Suitcase  is a curious thing: you want it so much you will kill to get, but ultimately it is a source of anxiety and not enough to make you happy.