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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Invisible Hands

Stig Sæterbakken

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To purchase Invisible Hands

Title: Invisible Hands
Author: Stig Sæterbakken
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 192 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: Invisible Hands - US
Invisible Hands - UK
Invisible Hands - Canada
  • Norwegian title: Usynlige hender
  • Translated by Seán Kinsella

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Our Assessment:

A- : good use of crime novel-foundations to explore more complexity

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Svenska Dagbladet . 26/5/2009 Fabian Kastner

  From the Reviews:
  • "Stig Sæterbakkens mörka, djupt obehagliga kriminalroman (.....) På ett korthugget, exakt språk iscensätter Sæterbakken hela det relationspsykologiska kretsloppet av idealisering, polarisering och ond integration. (...) Man läser den med stigande obehag ända till det abrupt ovissa, men av allt att döma logiskt följdriktiga slutet. Jag kan inte nog understryka hur deprimerande det är, när man väl förstått innebörden av vad man just läst." - Fabian Kastner, Svenska Dagbladet

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       It wouldn't take too much effort to dress up Invisible Hands and claim it as a 'Nordic crime novel'; one could imagine that if it had been the first Sæterbakken novel to be translated into English, picked up by a more commercial publisher (who could and should easily have been sold on it), it would have been snuck in on the mystery shelves -- and might well have enjoyed at least small break-out success, because it is unusual enough -- and particularly well written -- in comparison to most of the current Nordic noir offerings to stand out. As is, it's not the first of Sæterbakken's works to be translated -- Dalkey Archive Press have admirably already published three, with another coming out concurrently with this one -- and what image and audience he has in the US/UK may already be fairly settled; it will be interesting to see whether Invisible Hands can -- as it should -- expand his reach to an entirely new set of readers.
       The novel is narrated by Inspector Kristian Wold, and begins with him being assigned the case of a fourteen-year-old girl who had gone missing a year earlier. It had been a major case, with considerable police resources devoted to it, but the police got nowhere; as time passed, fewer and fewer officers were involved in the investigation -- and now it's been shoved off on Wold: "The whole point of passing the case on to me was to set it aside." He has to take one last pass through the enormous accumulated evidence and statements -- all of which have led nowhere -- and then basically they'll call it quits (even as it officially remains an ongoing investigation): he was to do: "one final analysis, before the whole thing was put away".
       Wold's first stop is to visit the mother of the child, the one who has been pushing hardest, all along. He dreads it:

     I didn't want to go in. I didn't want to meet her. I didn't want to have anything to do with her, nor the damned case.
       While Maria's father, Halvard Vendlbo, had simply accepted that Maria was gone, and had tried to move on with his life (separated from the girl's mother), Inger Danielsen still doesn't want to let go, or accept that her daughter is dead. She continues to live every parent's nightmare, the girl having simply vanished, without a trace:
It was like the ground had opened up and swallowed her. A mobile phone, discovered by a vagrant in a trash can and bearing only her fingerprints, was all that was left of her. Something had happened and it was beginning to look as though no one would ever know what.
       Wold's own domestic situation is also complicated, his clingy wife, Anne-Sofie suffering from some debilitating illness which he has little patience for; he finds excuses to stay away -- and, drawn to the also needy Inger, he finds a particularly inappropriate one.
       The women in Invisible Hands are emotionally and physically damaged -- Maria, most obviously, as it seems clear from the circumstances that something horrific must have happened to her, but also her mother, suffering still from the loss, as well as Anne-Sofie with her mysterious and incapacitating illness. Another example comes in a case Wold is also assigned to look into, Tove Gunerius, the wife of a wealthy man who has been brutally kneecapped (really kneecapped ...) but claims it was an accident. Everyone involved doesn't want the police sniffing around, but Wold can't leave be and insists on digging into the case, repeatedly badgering Tove's influential and creepy husband (who was obviously behind what happened to his wife).
       Wold has his own demons to deal with -- including his involvement in an investigation abroad that did not go by the book -- and obviously getting involved with the mother of the missing girl complicates matters enormously. It isn't unusual for the lead figure in a work of detective-fiction to be a tortured soul of this sort, but Sæterbakken's character is considerably better- and more convincingly drawn and presented than most.
       At one point Inger shows Wold a video of Maria, freezing the picture, and it dawns on Wold:
The longer the picture remained, the greater the difference was between the girl Inger had told me about and the person I now understood had lived with her. The Maria you remember has never lived, I thought. The Maria you miss will never be found, because she does not exist. The Maria you one day bury will not be, and was not, the person you thought she was.
       The realization comes as a relief to Wold; it is also a reminder of our subjectivity in how we see others, and of our relationships with them -- the consequences of which Wold has already seen with the women in his life. It is also a realization pivotal to the novel's disturbing conclusion.
       For all the clear-cut right and wrong in the novel, Sæterbakken impressively stakes a lot on the less likeable ambiguities of human action and reaction, including Wold's own. Life rarely offers tidy resolutions, and the crimes in Invisible Hands aren't neatly resolved -- or are, but in a somewhat disturbing way, such as in the Gunerius case, where husband and wife seem to be in agreement, even as traditional justice isn't served. The terrible (near-cold-)case of Maria too offers no easy, happy ending -- not of the traditional sort, certainly --; 'powerful' is perhaps the kindest way of describing how Sæterbakken bring his story to a conclusion.
       Invisible Hands is an impressive not-quite-crime-novel, arguably another step forward in what the police procedural -- which is, at its most basic, what it is (even if Wold doesn't follow protocol very closely ...) -- can be. It could be seen as an example of the crime novel that 'transcends the genre' but that doesn't really capture what Sæterbakken has done; it's only incidentally -- but very effectively -- a crime/police investigation novel, and explores considerably more than just the crimes Wold is investigating.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 June 2016

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Invisible Hands: Reviews: Other books by Stig Sæterbakken under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian author Stig Sæterbakken lived 1966 to 2012.

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© 2016 the complete review

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