The Seventh Child by Erik Valeur, translated from Danish by K.E. Semmel, involves a journalist provoked to identify missing orphans who may be abandoned children of the elite, connected to an unsolved murder on September 11th (available April 1, 2014).
On the early morning of September 11, 2001, a woman is found dead on a beach in Denmark. The police immediately begin investigating the strange circumstances surrounding her death. Strange items are left around her body—the branch of a linden tree, an old science fiction book, a piece of rope, and a golden canary. Just a few hours later, however, the death of one woman suddenly loses attention as two planes crash into the Twin Towers. The case goes cold.
Years later, blue envelopes addressed to certain individuals arrive containing photos of a mysterious building and seven small children. Also in the envelope are baby booties. One of the recipients is a reporter named Knud Taasing, who noses around and discovers the mysterious building is the Kongslund Orphanage—a place where unwanted children of the rich and famous are left behind. As Taasing and the other blue envelope recipients are confronted with Kongslund’s secrets, connections between the higher levels of Denmark’s government, history, and a woman’s mysterious death are made.
First published in Denmark, Eric Valeur’s The Seventh Child is now available in English. It’s an epic story, covering the lives multiple characters, stretches of Danish history, and cover-ups. Like many strange mysteries before it, The Seventh Child focuses on an orphanage, the legendary Konglund Orphanage. Who was left there? And why?
The reader is first introduced to the mysterious Kongslund Orphanage via Orla Bernsten, the chief of staff in the National Ministry, who receives one of the blue envelopes along with his regular business mail. At first Bernsten isn’t sure what he’s seeing:
What he saw looked like a copy of two magazine pages. On the left side of the of the page was a round circle resembling an old-fashioned picture frame, inside of which was a photograph of an old mansion with rust-brown walls. It appeared to be floating ina gray mist that hid both the sky and the foundation of the building, as though it had never been anchored in earthly soil.
No less than seven white chimneys – three on each end and one in the middle – rose from the steeply pitch roof above ivy-clad walls, underscoring the fairy-tale character of the rendering. The tiles gleamed, suggesting the photo had been taken early in the morning, before the sun had evaporated the dew.
Along with the photo of the orphanage is a haunting photo of seven orphans.
On the right side of the page, the anonymous sender had placed another photo, one that resembled a black-and-white reproduction of an old amateur photo: under a Christmas tree that extended to the ceiling, a small group of children sat on a carpet, staring up at the photographer. They were all wearing elf hats. A couple of the children smiled, while others looked solemn, as if unsettled by the scrutiny of the person behind the camera.
Above the photograph, in block letters, were three words: “THE SEVEN DWARVES.”
The identity of these seven small children is important to Bernsten—and to the reporter, Knud Taasing, who received a copy of this envelope and is convinced these children are the unwanted, potentially scandalous love-children of government officials who were lost in the largest Denmark baby-boom of 1961. Discovering the identity of these infants and toddlers is the heart of The Seventh Child. Who are they? Can they be found? Are they still alive? What secrets do they carry that would be worth murdering for?
Seventh Child has an incredibly strong opening section that shows the main consequence of remaining unknown: it’s too easy to be forgotten. The novel opens with the questionable death of a woman on a beach. Despite weird circumstances that would demand attention in any other place and time, she is lost in the chaos that surrounds 9/11.
If the case of the dead woman ever had a chance of making it to the front pages of the Danish newspapers, that chance was now lost. Most media never mentioned her. Two smaller dailies printed a few lines, and a few weeks later, one reported the police decision to close the case, labeling it an “accident.”
After that, the dead woman literally sank into oblivion.
The police had been unable to identify her. At their Copenhagen headquarters, homicide detectives concluded that, since there hadn’t been a single call about her or any missing person who match her description, no one was looking for the woman.
Valeur begins with the question of identity and carries it through the entire novel. As the stories twist and turn, weaving together and then unraveling, the reader is taken from the highest levels of government to lonely apartments to cold beaches. The central question is less of a whodunit and more like: how do we figure out who we really are?
In the end, Valeur’s novel is about railing against oblivion—he makes the argument that we should know the identities of women on beaches, of small children in photographs, and who leads us. As Knud Taasing, Valeur’s intrepid reporter, discovers the individual stories of these children—now all grown up—he takes people who could have been forgotten and gives them their history, sharing those histories, dark and haunting, with the reader.
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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.