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An eerie Swedish novel by Steve Sem-Sandberg

The Tempest.?By Steve Sem-Sandberg. Translated by Anna Paterson.Faber; 256 pages; £12.99

ANDREAS RETURNS to his childhood home on one of Norway’s many little islands. It is a Scandinavian April: “strands of mist cling to the ground, enveloping the two sentry boxes at the bridge head and what remains of the iron post for the old barrier across the road.” The opening page of Steve Sem-Sandberg’s new novel (elegantly translated from the Swedish by Anna Paterson) hints at what is to come—personal and political history shrouded by the fog of time and an unwillingness to confront the sins of the past. Those ghostly sentry boxes, the old barrier, are a warning against intrusion.

Mr Sem-Sandberg is a novelist determined to confront the worst of humanity. His previous book, “The Chosen Ones”, dealt with the Nazi programme of forced euthanasia for ill and disabled children; “The Emperor of Lies” was set in the ghetto of the Polish city of Lodz during the Holocaust. Now he turns to Norway, and the lingering stench left by the German occupation during the second world war. The name of Vidkun Quisling, who led the collaborationist government, has since become a byword for treachery.

Andreas’s homecoming is prompted by the death of his guardian, Johannes. At first, this seems a conventional story, as Andreas recounts his arrival from the mainland to see how things stand at the Yellow Villa, where he and his sister, Minna, grew up. But soon the reader learns of the mysterious and frightening circumstances in which they came to be in Johannes’s care. They were left with him, seemingly for a short while, by their American parents, the Lehmans, but then the couple disappeared, as if into thin air. They were never heard from again.

Johannes, like everyone else on the island, lived in the shadow of its owner, Jan-Heinz Kaufmann. A botanist who pressed a copy of his leaflet, “On the Nutritional Requirements of Nature and of Mankind”, onto all his employees, Kaufmann had been a minister in Quisling’s government. As Andreas digs into the past, the questions only become more puzzling. What actually happened to his and Minna’s parents? What was Kaufmann really up to in his private kingdom? And how complicit were the islanders in the events of the war? Guilt hangs over the story and its setting, which seems to hover outside time: the island “seemed as if it had always existed, full of wailing, enigmatic life forms, long before anyone set foot on it”.

This is a gripping, disturbing book. Mr Sem-Sandberg’s realistic narrative morphs into something stranger. Events occur out of chronological order, the narrator and other islanders slide casually into violence, information is repeated as if Andreas has forgotten what he has said, his memory overcome by the island mist. Throughout the reader wonders at the parallels with Shakespeare’s play of the same name; the correlations of plot and character are cleverly slippery. At the end of the play, Prospero breaks his staff, abjuring his work. Such a renunciation is not so easy on Mr Sem-Sandberg’s eerie isle.

This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline "This thing of darkness"
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