Only One Life by Sara Blaedel is a Danish procedural (available July 1, 2012).
It was clearly no ordinary drowning. Inspector Louise Rick is immediately called out to Holbraek Fjord when a young immigrant girl is found in the watery depths, a piece of concrete tied around her waist and two mysterious circular patches on the back of her neck.
Her name was Samra, and Louise soon learns that her short life was a sad story. Her father had already been charged once with assaulting her and her mother, Sada, who makes it clear that her husband would indeed be capable of killing Samra if she brought dishonor to the family. But she maintains that Samra hadn’t done anything dishonorable. Then why was she supposed to be sent back to Jordan? Samra’s best friend Dicta thinks it was an honor killing. A few days later though Dicta is discovered, bludgeoned to death, and Samra’s younger sister has gone missing.
Only One Life by Danish author Sara Blaedel is not so much a whodunit. I wouldn’t even say it’s a whydunit; it is, to put it gently, a “what the heck happened?” kind of book.
Well, the synopsis above more or less summarizes what happened, but to know the story is not to understand the story. Only One Life is one of those novels that has many layers. The first layer is made of facts, the second of hidden truths, the third is composed primarily of lies, the fourth talks about the social background and so forth.
As in her previous outstanding novel Call Me Princess, Blaedel is more interested in exploring the tortured psyches of her subjects than providing the reader with a fast-paced narrative. She wants to tell the story behind the story, to see where people are coming from and where they dream of going. She doesn’t seem to seek to impress us with her twists and turns in the plot, as much as to make us think. To think about the world that’s changing all around us, consider seriously the issue of immigration and explore our capabilities to adapt in these new realities.
Her heroes and heroines are not extraordinary people; they are as common as they come. They live ordinary lives, lives full of small joys and great sorrows, lives which even at the best of times look unfulfilled, robbed of any potential for happiness.
Samra is a girl that arrived in a new land, with different habits, but who tries hard to adapt, despite the fact that her family doesn’t seem to want her to do so:
By the time Louise had read most of Samra’s diary, she had a knot in her gut. The pages drew a picture of a young girl who was torn. On the one hand, she was trying to meet her parents’ expectations and demands, while at the same time she tried to adapt to her new country and new friends. It was clear that she was having a hard time finding the balance between these two in her own identity. Was she Danish or was she still a Muslim girl from Jordan? Louise read through the lines that what Samra was really trying to achieve, with so much effort, was to be a Muslim Danish girl, which on the surface sounded easy enough; but when you read the diary, you realized that it was obviously far from it.
Dicta, Samra’s best friend, leads a mostly carefree life, since she has rich parents who more or less let her be, even though she’s no older than fifteen. Louise Rick, the cop, is a highly intelligent yet sad woman, who tries to find solace in her job and helping other people out. Her friend, Camilla, is a stubborn journalist, who’s trying to recover from a recent break-up, do the best she can with her son Markus, and of course excel at her work.
There are quite a few others—mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, friends and lovers—in this story, and there’s drama all around. And that’s exactly what makes the book so special. People are the story, not the crimes. The crimes just serve to kick-start the process of this long journey of discovery that will lead the main characters time and again into dark places, while it will also show them that in the end not everything is lost, there’s still hope in the world.
Blaedel tackles the big issues of today with an open mind, and in doing so, she has to give her heroes a human face. Nobody is perfect. They all have their weaknesses, they all every now and then do things that they regret and they all try desperately to understand each other, even though sometimes there’s no way of making that happen.
How can people from a Muslim country find their way and start a new life in a world so much different from their own? How do they forget their traditions and their codes of honor? How do they integrate into an immoral, at least in their eyes, society? And how can the locals accept these outsiders? Do they feel threatened by them or do they really welcome them as who they truly are? Could it be that the only things that keep society from falling apart, and keep social tensions from rising, are observing some codes of silence and every now and then turning a blind eye?
It takes a crime to burst this ideal world bubble, and another to bring it to the brink of destruction.
Only One Life is a good police procedural that tells a great story, but most of all it’s a novel with a conscience, and you can’t say that for every book that hits the bookshelves these days. A lot of those books try to feed on people’s fear of the unknown, while this one just tries to understand that fear and put it into context.
Lakis Fourouklas has published four novels and three short-story collections in Greek. He’s currently translating his work into English and blogs at Fiction & More. He also keeps a few blogs in Greek regarding general fiction, Japanese Literature, and Crime Fiction. Follow him on Twitter: @lakisf. He lives in the wilderness of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Read all posts by Lakis Fourouklas for Criminal Element.