Malin Persson Giolito’s English language debut, Quicksand, is the story of an 18-year-old girl accused in a horrific school shooting.
Despite President Donald Trump’s comments at his Feb. 18th rally in Florida, there have been no terrorist attacks in Sweden, and no school shootings to date, even though the country boasts a sizeable per capita immigrant population.
But while life for the most part in this Scandinavian country is peaceful, Sweden, like its Nordic neighbors, is a hotbed of crime. . . writing, that is. With a population of well under ten million, the country has a disproportionate number of authors writing in that genre (there’s also a disproportionate number of billionaires but that’s another story). The success of the Millennium Trilogy author Stieg Larsson is credited with starting it all in 2005 with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
But this March, with the publication by Other Press of English language debut novel Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito, a new talent arrives. Quicksand, about a school shooting in Stockholm’s wealthiest suburb, was voted Best Swedish Crime Novel of 2016 and has topped Sweden’s sales charts and critic lists.
Quicksand recounts the trial of the accused school shooter, Maja Norberg. And Persson Giolito has the pedigree: she’s the oldest daughter of Swedish crime writer G.W. Persson, and in her career as a lawyer at a large corporate firm, she learned her way around a courtroom. At her lunch at the Swedish Embassy in New York hosted by the Swedish Consul General, Persson Giolito was enthusiastic when she said, “I love the law and I love the courtroom.”
She also generously praises her collaboration with translator Rachel Willson-Broyles. Not only did Willson-Broyles translate the book from Swedish to English but Persson Giolito credits her with ably capturing the voice of Maja, a just-turned 18-year-old charged with the shootings that killed her boyfriend, her best friend, her teacher and other students. “When I read the first draft, it was so moving,” says Persson Giolito in the interview at the office of her publisher following the embassy lunch. “It was my novel but in translation, I saw it with completely different eyes, as if I were reading it for the first time.” Her awe quickly morphed into incredulity. “Oh my God, this is good,” was her initial reaction. She laughs, remembering thinking, “Am I this good?”
The former lawyer turned full-time writer who lives in Brussels with her husband and three daughters manages to turn a book set during a courtroom trial into a surprising page-turner. The book has sold more than 90,000 copies in Sweden—the most of any of her four previous books—and her readers, she says, range in age from 16 to 98.
The 408-page novel opens on the first day of the trial with chapters alternating courtroom scenes with the compelling back-stories of the rich entitled students and the events that conspired to make them the victims of a mass-murder.
Persson Giolito consciously mixes in a heavy dose of contemporary social issues. The book addresses class and immigration, race and racism, criminal justice and conviction by media, wealth and leisure, love and obsession. And that’s not all: the story examines loyalty and codependence, innocence and guilt, and, for all the helicopter moms and dads in the audience-what is owed by a parent to a child. “I want to tell stories in a context,” says Persson Giolito.
The book’s trial, led by defense attorney Peder Sander, is an accurate portrayal of the proceedings within the Swedish justice system. In previous novels, Persson Giolito’s used a female lawyer schooled in criminal justice as her protagonist. For this book, used a teenage narrator. She also wrote in first person for the first time. And, she broke rules beyond her own dicta: “A school shooter is almost always a white male, not necessarily from a marginalized environment,” she says.
“Maja is ‘a 100% honest narrator. She wants to tell the truth,” Persson Giolito says. “Maja gives voice to the helplessness we feel right now, whether it’s Syria, ISIS, or the repairman who doesn’t show up for the job.”
Readers can relate to the helplessness Maja feels. “It’s like quicksand,” Persson Giolito says, evoking the title. “You can’t move without going deeper into the situation.” Persson Giolito had other reasons for changing her narrator to a disaffected young person; Maja resembles a favorite character from the author’s own teenage years: Holden Caulfield. “I read Catcher in the Rye 30 times. I related to him as a deeply depressed funny teenager. He formed the teen me,” she says.
Like her protagonist and Holden Caulfield, Persson Giolito went to an upscale prep school. Literature was her first love, but she took an introductory law course, which she loved. “At the same time I hated literature studies: the snobbery of it and the absolute meaningless of it.” Her father, a criminologist, confirmed her change in career direction. “He told me that nobody can live by reading alone,” she remembers. Persson Giolito had a stunning start to her law career, recruited following graduation by the largest Nordic law firm. “I was the golden child of the firm until I had my first child,” she says. By the time she was pregnant with her third child, she was fired, shortly before Christmas. It was a shock, she says, but by New Year’s, she was contemplating her annual and often repetitive resolutions: lose ten pounds, exercise more, write a novel. She figured if not now, when, and knocked out her first book in less than nine months. She delivered the manuscript the day her daughter was born. The writing had gone fast, perhaps because she wrote what she knew: a novel about a female lawyer who is fired while pregnant. “It got a lot of press, and everybody knew which law firm it was. They had to hire crisis management for six months.” Of this initial success, she says: “Who wants to be an angry bitch? But I was good at being revengeful.”
Now she spends her days at home writing full time from 9am to 4pm. She only stops to meet her children at the bus stop and to walk the dog. The day of this interview, following her U.S. book tour, she was headed back to Brussels to begin a fifth book. She’s already decided that the protagonist will be a character she knows well: Peder Sanders from Quicksand. And, like her other novels, it will be set in present time. She’s not quite sure what the plot will be but she says she doesn’t rule out the topic of terrorism. After all, it’s been in the news a lot lately. Or, at least the fake news.