The White City by Karolina Ramqvist, review by Bruce Jacobs
Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo may have sparked a Swedish crime phenomenon, but former editor-in-chief of Sweden's Arena magazine Karolina Ramqvist is putting her own stamp on the genre with the sensitive Karin and her mysterious gangster lover, John. A follow up to The Girlfriend (not yet published in English), in which the paramours first appear, The White City is the self-contained story of Karin's lavish life gone on the rocks after John has disappeared and the Swedish authorities are about to seize their modernist mansion, car and ill-gotten bank accounts.
All Karin has left is their infant daughter, Dream, and a safe full of guns. Her phone and utilities are soon to be disconnected; winter's wind and snow chill her cement-floored house. John's former gang members and their girlfriends won't return her calls. Karin is down to eating canned food and stale muesli, smoking cigarette butts from ashtrays, selling her designer bags and shoes online, and having quick sex with the pizza delivery guy while she can still afford to order in. And, of course, caring for Dream--breastfeeding her, bundling her for stroller walks, changing her diapers and singing her to sleep. Karin's once extravagant edgy life has been shrunk to one of motherhood: "Dried pools of breast milk and urine, patches of drool, and globs of spit-up splotched the champagne-colored satin sheets.... Dirty towels and crumpled wet wipes were strewn among glasses and bowls crusted with leftovers." Can Karin muster the energy and wits to use John's small arsenal to shake money out of his fellow mobsters? Can she be the mother to Dream that she wants to and feels she ought to be?
If lean on plot, The White City is rich in language and ambience. Moody, mysterious, maternal and magnetic, it is a story set against a frozen landscape "mottled with meltwater and mud splatter," with slippery subway stairways and immigrants shoveling snow from roofs. Winner of Sweden's prestigious 2015 Enquist Prize, it is a haunting novel of a woman adrift yet firmly attached to romantic memories of her lover and the simple needs of her daughter. She may be broke, but she is not broken as she realizes that "children are a kind of asset.... Bringing her joy when there was nothing to feel joyful about." Like a Madonna of the tundra, Karin is a resilient and irresistible protagonist, and Ramqvist is a serious contender for the Swedish literary limelight.