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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Quicksand

by
Malin Persson Giolito


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Quicksand



Title: Quicksand
Author: Malin Persson Giolito
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 498 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: Quicksand - US
Quicksand - UK
Quicksand - Canada
Arenas movedizas - España
  • Swedish title: Störst av allt
  • Translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles

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Our Assessment:

B : decent courtroom drama, though falls back on the simplistic too readily

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 25/3/2017 Lidija Haas
Publishers Weekly . 23/1/2017 .
Skånska Dagbladet . 13/9/2016 Magnus Persson
The Washington Post A 13/3/2017 Patrick Anderson
World Lit. Today . 3-4/2017 Lanie Tankard


  From the Reviews:
  • "The novel is structured as a courtroom procedural, yet it clearly has ambitions beyond that, addressing Sweden’s underlying economic and racial tensions. Characters often conform to social as well as narrative type, and we can’t ignore the connections between the two (.....) In the end, the novel’s emotional logic keeps it on a fairly conventional path, but it nonetheless points to issues beyond its own frame." - Lidija Haas, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This methodical and straightforward plotting, in the tradition of Barbara Vine, may either tantalize or frustrate American readers used to a crackling pace and a surfeit of twists. Nevertheless, Gioloto’s novel is haunting and immersive." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Till den här romanens förtjänster hör att frågorna om orsaker och skuld hanteras ovanligt nyanserat." - Magnus Persson, Svenska Dagbladet

  • " The author, Malin Persson Giolito, carries us deep into the lives of these star-crossed lovers and the decadent society that shaped them. (...) Giolito, who practiced law before she turned to fiction, writes with exceptional skill. She seems to know everything about Stockholm’s rich and the ways of teenage girls. (...) It’s a long novel, perhaps a little too long, but always smart and engrossing." - Patrick Anderson, The Washington Post

  • "(A)n indictment of the zeitgeist. (...) Maria ("Maja") Norberg gets the whole volume as a forum, but her flippant first-person voice prevents it from becoming a tearjerker. She paints a sweltering global landscape with prophetic condemnation. (...) Quicksand is a whydunit, not a whodunit." - Lanie Tankard, World Literature Today

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:

       The Swedish publishers presented Quicksand as en rättegångsthriller, but it's more courtroom-drama than -thriller. The novel opens with a very short -- just a page long -- tableau of the scene of the crime, a classroom with a handful of the dead and dying and the one that hasn't: "even got as much as a bruise", but then jumps forward nine months, to the beginning of the trial of Maria (Maja) Norberg, case B 147/66.
       Maja was the one who survived the incident physically unscathed. Maja was the one who shot her boyfriend, Sebastian, and her best friend, Amanda, at the scene. The now eighteen year-old girl stands accused of having planned this small massacre -- "homeroom teacher and self-described social reformer" Christer and Sebastian's friend Dennis were also killed, and another student, Samir, seriously wounded -- together with Sebastian, along with the incidental crimes surrounding it: there was another body, and there was a bag in Maja's locker which suggests she and Sebastian were planning something much, much bigger.
       Maja narrates the story, walking readers through the three weeks of the trial from her perspective -- one that is often inattentive or drifts off, and tends to summary: Maja understands the stakes, but focuses more inwards than on the case-specifics. She describes the outlines -- the waiting, the lunch-breaks, the figures involved (lawyers, witnesses, audience) -- at some length but almost none of the actual testimony, even her own, is presented at any length, and for the most part she simply she summarizes what the lawyers for both sides expound on. There are only a few scenes of actual courtroom testimony drama, a few scenes where something specific and impactful is said or elicited; instead, a great deal of what happens in the courtroom -- specifically, on the stand -- is elided over. Which is not to say we don't get the whole story: no, Maja fills in the details, at her own pace and in her own order, separately from how the trial unfolds.
       So Quicksand is, in a way, a two-track courtroom drama: on the one hand there is the official record, the trial itself, and on the other there is Maja's very personal, intimate account.
       At one point Maja notes that kids are hard to fool -- but:

Adults, on the other hand, want to make up their own minds about which story best matches their beliefs. People aren't interested in what others say or think, what they have gone through, what conclusions they have drawn. People are interested in hearing only what they think they already know.
       For her, this courtroom spectacle aligns with that. Maja knows she is a notorious figure, a tabloid cover girl about whom the nation has made up its mind. And the two versions of her story being presented in the courtroom are both tailored to spin the facts this way or that; she has an excellent defense lawyer, but he's as little interested in determining what actually happened as the prosecutor is: he only wants to get her off, and the prosecutor only wants to convince the judges of her extensive guilt. (Continental European-style, this is not a jury-trial, but one before a panel of judges.)
       So too, Maja acknowledges near the conclusion:
     You all probably won't even remember how this trial ends, whether I'm found guilty, or what I'm found guilty of. [...] My truth will soon exist nowhere but in the binders full of material from my trial, archived in a cold basement.
       Yet her telling suggests even that will not be the entire truth -- just the bureaucratic outcome. It's her own story, with its nuances and details, that is meant to be revealing, that is meant to be the truth.
       Withholding so much of the actual testimony, and the prosecution spin, and filling in details left out of the trial, Maja is, of course, a suspect narrator. And it's not like she didn't do something: she acknowledges pulling the trigger, for one; she admits to one murder -- but her claim is it was an act of necessity -- and she acknowledeges responsibility for another (but it was an 'accident' ...). And while author Giolito seems to side strongly with her protagonist, even she leaves at least a hint of ambiguity in all the tellings: possibly, Maja is entirely innocent, but we can't be entirely sure. (That said, the book could have used with more uncertainty about this question.)
       Before testifying, Maja realizes: "Once I have told my story, there will be no going back". She commits to a version -- an explanation, for the court, for herself, for the readers. Yet she doesn't even describe her own testimony in court; presumably, it's a version of what she reveals to the reader in the rest of her account, but it's unclear whether she reveals as much, or the same details. It's unclear to what extent the judges are presented with the same version that readers are, or whether it's a sanitized one, limited information revealed under the guiding hand of the practiced defense attorney (as one would imagine and hope).
       Maja is a teenage narrator, and Giolito is successful enough in capturing her voice that Quicksand has an unfortunate YA-feel to it. Maja's understanding is not fully mature -- and Giolito not strong enough a writer to allow for adult insights while relying on such a narrator. So this is a love-and-society novel that remains strictly at YA level -- letting Maja off the hook in yet another way: she's too young to really understand all this. That all works, in some ways -- as (young-)character-study Quicksand is arguably quite successful -- but also leaves the novel feeling more shallow than it should be, given the weighty subject-matter(s), as well.
       Worse is that Giolito doesn't try a bit harder for a bit more subtlety. But, no, bad boy Sebastian -- repeating a grade, which is how he and Maja hook up -- has to be: "the son of the richest man in Sweden, Claes Fagerman", and the boyfriend-foil has to be the ultimate feel-good story, the boy from the wrong side of the tracks made good, the stellar student, Samir. Even Giolito seems to realize she is pushing it here, having Maja admit, when she learns where Samir lives:
Was I surprised when I looked up his address ? Maybe. Maybe because it was Tensta, one of the ghettos with the worst reputations, it seemed too extreme somehow, like it was made up.
       No kidding. But Giolito lays it on thick with this and a lot else, like the fast and fancy lifestyles: at one point Claes sends his helicopter to pick up Maja from her grandfather's country home, for example.
       It's not unreasonable that the kids at Djursholm Upper Secondary School include the ultra-privileged -- and that they act this way. (Well, Sebastian's parties are a bit over the top.) But, for example, Maja's upper middle class parents -- mom is a corporate lawyer, dad a successful money man -- swoon over their baby being a Fagerman chosen-one astonishingly blindly -- indeed, so ridiculously that readers looking to see Maja as an unreliable narrator could easily take these passages as proof that her account is entirely -- and exaggeratedly, to the point of not being credible -- subjective.
       All this might work if there was any psychological insight into this, but here again having an eighteen-year-old narrator works against the novel -- with Giolito not able to slip enough in incidentally to craft a more insightful portrait. Yes, rich man Claes is a bad dad -- though, hey, Sebastian's older brother made it to Harvard -- and there are some father-son issues, but seen only through Maja's limited eyes (which anyway presumably only get a partial picture) the leap from this to schoolroom massacre (and more) remains entirely unconvincing. Throwing in class conflict, with Samir waving the banner (red flag ?) of inequality and wise words from a (Claes-paid) lecturer imported from the US, who warns: "We must be cautious about the social contract. Both parties must uphold their side of the agreement" doesn't add weight to the novel, but rather makes it feel even thinner. The contrast and conflict between (super-)rich and under-privileged is nothing more than cartoonish here.
       Quicksand is reasonably entertaining, Giolito taking her time in allowing Maja to reveal significant details, and Maja's musings as she faces and goes through her trial are of some interest. Indeed, the focus on the defendant, and how she experiences a trial -- including much of the off-time between courtroom appearances -- is an interesting perspective, and a welcome change from the traditional courtroom drama that generally focuses so intently on the lawyers. Legally, it's slightly more disappointing, especially in how suspiciously quickly a verdict comes in: "The written verdict will be delivered later; it will contain a more detailed account of the findings of the court", the judge announces; gee, thanks ..... It's all tied up a bit too TV-movie-like easily in conclusion.
       Unsurprisingly, youthful characters are rarely fully-formed, and the ones here are no exception: even Maja, whom we get to see in such detail, can't entirely convince. Seen through the youthful eyes, some of the adult characters -- specifically the various parents -- are even more cartoonishly sketched, undermining the gravity of the book's premise(s). As to those who are most obviously guilty, there’s far too little exploration of what might lie behind that, with what blame there is painted much too broadly.
       Too obviously avoiding getting to (or revealing) the point, at times, with its a bit too clumsily (en)forced pacing, Quicksand is nevertheless a novel that one can sink into -- a bit long, but not sluggish. But ultimately it does have more of a shallow puddle-feel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 February 2017

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Links:

Quicksand: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Malin Persson Giolito was born in 1969.

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© 2017 the complete review

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