More Bitter Than Death is the latest book by Swedish Crime Writing duo Camilla Grebe and Asa Traff. I read their debut novel, Some Kind of Peace, last year although I notice I didn’t review it on this site which is a strange omission as I remember enjoying it. Both tone and setting reminded me a little of Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway novels. I also liked this follow-up, which was written with a keen appreciation of the subtle trauma involved in domestic abuse, although I do have some reservations about the depictions of violence. Once more it has led me to reflect on what level of detail, when it comes to descriptions of violence, is acceptable and in particular why we need to be treated to such graphic depictions of assaults on women.
Five year old Tilde hides under a table and watches as her mother is kicked to death. Stockholm police focus on the woman’s current boyfriend, Henrik, who has a history of domestic violence. Henrik’s ex-wife is a member of a new support group that brings together victims of abuse. Each has their story to tell but when violence impinges into one of their meetings, the dangers of their situation is suddenly brought into focus. Psychotherapist Siri Bergman, who is struggling to adjust to her own more settled domestic situation, becomes drawn into the lives of the women although the lines between professional and personal are increasingly blurred.
The opening scene which sees Susanne Olsson kicked to death is in some ways unrepresentative of a book that is both spookily tense and also spends time drawing out the multi-layered impact of family abuse. The tone of the writing is, in general, reflective and sober with emphasis on the lives of the victims. But the depictions of the killings were fairly graphic and as the narrative involves a child witness, I found that it gave the book an air on unreality. Without wanting to give too much of the plot away, how likely is it that the same child will witness two separate killings of unrelated women?
It’s a shame as this series has a lot of things going for it. But the violence made me stop short and question the legitimacy of the whole narrative. A lighter touch, I suspect, would have been much more successful.
Thanks to Simon and Schuster for my review copy. The translation was by Tara Chase.