Erik Axl Sund
Harvill Secker, 2016
Erik Axl Sund is the author of this book, but he is a composite creature. Jerker Eriksson and Håkan Axlander Sundquist are lifelong friends and collaborators elsewhere–in music, in the art world, etc. To write with a peer can produce popular work (see Good Omens, for example), but without fail it will produce a question: Which bit is whose, then? Choosing to publish under one portmanteau de plume allows the book to be a book and not a project, not a novelty. One whole thing, the product of synergy.
As I move further into a preference for single-cartoonist books in my recreational reading, The Crow Girl comes unexpected: A novel, the accepted turf of the lone wolf author, an outstanding argument for the golden potential of collaborative creation. My gosh, it is so complete.
The Crow Girl is a serial killer procedural mystery set and written in Sweden. It is one of the kindest books I have ever read. Late on, it seems like it might fail you, as the third book (Swedish publication was in parts, English hardback is one 800 page tome–and be thankful for that, no waiting in anguish on the next part for us–marked in three “books”) begins and a character with a trans identity is introduced, in close conjunction with death. I worried. As I did I found myself receiving the same gracious picture of humanity through her story as I had from all those women previous. The Crow Girl stays as it ever was, complex, complicated, compassionate, unflinching. Fair. It stays fair. Observant of unfair circumstance. Alive to the cruelty of forced adaptability. People are not bonsai trees and should be allowed to unfurl as they grow.
Prior to beginning, both members of the writing duo suffered a tragedy. Whether it was a single, shared tragedy or fate’s joke in timing, they began writing as therapy. Speaking at Cheltenham Literature Festival, they told how they’d think of the worst things, egg each other on, both try to shock the other. From this I was prepared for Nesbo’s chilly cruelty; on the contrary (and this reflects well on their shared translator Neil Smith) I received therapeutic reading. The Crow Girl displays one character’s mental health journey, exquisitely diagrammed by the structure of the novel itself, a narrative structure which at the same time is proving the format of the central mystery. When I say “it is so complete,” I mean from every angle.
As an ill perspective-character gains strength and health, so widens the narrative pillar at the centre of the plot, what the investigating character(s) “know” and are aware of. Branches of narrative, disparate perspectives, are removed directly as the important, ill character’s coping mechanisms are discarded. And as the reader learns, along with this character, what should and shouldn’t be accepted about the world and the worldviews of those around them–what should and shouldn’t be given attention, as how a detective pares down witness statements–so slowly clarifies the cause of the crimes informing the primary protagonist’s police case. And in turn, so increases the health of the already-mentioned ill character. Detective, ill character, and reader all share one desire: To eventually see the truth. And the truth is both specific to the mystery and wide enough to remind a reader when to take moral responsibility in their own life. Sickness sloughs away; she, her and you become stronger and surer, and the book rolls on, of when to act/when not to judge. The Crow Girl imparts reflections that will shore you through these dire times. It gives a made-up woman herself, structurally exemplifies that giving, making the return to self unmissable, and through reading, you allow her to model your own improvement.
Though it centres itself upon the tired and underpaid home-life of one senior policewoman, the book, as a crime novel, turns mainly on the sexual assault of children and their resultant calamitous trauma. Not simply their own, either, but the routes that guilt and observation of one’s own horrific action as an abuser or accomplice to abuse can take upon a psyche. Some of the abusers in this story have been themselves abused and for some that question is unanswered, but the focus that Erik Axl Sund takes is upon the difference between those harmed children who receive compassionate relief and generous love and those for whom a traumatised state is supported, normalised, and compacted by their surroundings, whether intimate, familial, local or international. The authors, as Sund, do not carelessly suggest “children who are abused become abusers.” They say, very carefully, that people for whom there is no escape will continue to search for one. Their narrative suggests that the less relief from victimisation is offered, the greater the chance of dissociation and cruelty. One or more of their abusive characters may be violently externalising confusion that stems from sexually based trauma–this predatory action is framed as directly subsequent, but not directly consequent, to their own prior victimisation. No A-to-Z closed-case navigation, but slow, elaborate, sad sad stops at A, B (where they got no help), C (where they got no help), D (where they got no help), E. At no point does this narrative advise (allow?) its reader to think, “Ah, this is simple. I blame the plain fact that the bully was also a victim.” There’s more to pain than that.
Some characters escape what for others becomes a cycle. If hurt people hurt people, do healed people heal people?
Do you ever look at the world and think “I wonder if I can really see it?” The White awakening post-Trump (post-any disaster) hands me a yes. Erik Axl Sund offers a book that simulates the experience of coming awake, looking dead in the eyes of obviously avoidable structural inequalities like homeless life, refugee status, the invisibilisation of orphans and the mentally ill foreign and poor. And at patriarchy, the intrinsic sexual cruelty of patriarchy, and at sadnesses so simple as knowing the impossibility of following one’s dearest held dream. It looks at worn out marriage and casual spite.
And it gives us a love story between bisexual women that’s so warm, so gently excited and everyday you’ll curse the closing of the book. Erik Axl Sund don’t simply show us the negative truths and the evil structures that “we” in the (inter)national sense miss accidentally-on-purpose. They show us what is good, what is real, what kindness looks like, and how ignoring good and wholesome real things–queer humanity, the dimension and actuality of poor lives, the respect for others that comes easily and honestly for some, to spin a short list–is needlessly creating suffering, too. People can make such deep wounds, but do not look away from the good, the protection, the support we can work. We can wound, but we can salve, and we can create comfort and security. Hope is not a lie, though neither is despair.
This book is a gift. I am lucky to both give and receive it.