The Survivors: Alex Schulman writes first fiction novel

A Swedish lakeside cottage is the scene of the disturbance in The Survivors. Picture: Shutterstock
A Swedish lakeside cottage is the scene of the disturbance in The Survivors. Picture: Shutterstock

Alex Schulman is a Swedish author, journalist, and radio and television personality. His four previous books were bestselling non-fiction, with his first novel, The Survivors, making an international debut, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

This novel is hard to classify - existential thriller, perhaps? - and not easy to review, since the pivotal crisis point should be discovered by the reader, and the tricky device of parallel narratives, one forward and one back, complicates things even further.

That said, the device does work, enhancing a sense of unease, rather like the tilted camera angles and towering shadows in the black and white classic movie, The Third Man.

Basically, it's the story of closely examined life, peculiar to a Swedish family: Mother and Father, three young sons, Nils, Benjamin, and Pierre, together with a pet dog, during a summer holiday at a remote cottage, surrounded by a brooding forest and shadowy lake, in a land where the light has an almost tangible emotional resonance. The viewpoint belongs mostly to Benjamin, hypersensitive and inclined to overthink everything, as he picks at threads in the fabric of his existence.

The novel opens near the story's end, with the brothers, now adults, about to release their mother's ashes into the lake. Benjamin has called for help since he is unable to stop a furious fight between Nils and Pierre, and the police arrive to find the brothers, sobbing and bloodstained, as they hug each other on the water's edge. The last sentence of the opening chapter describes it this way: "What's playing out here on these stone steps, the tears of the three brothers, their swollen faces and all the blood, is only the last ripple on the water, the one furthest out, the one with the most distance from the point of impact." From here, the forward narrative takes in the family summer, with its terrible "point of impact", while the parallel stream tracks backwards, in two-hour time frames, from the opening scene.

Problem families are too easily dismissed as dysfunctional, but that's misleading. What, precisely, is a functional family? In today's crowded, confused and damage-prone world, few families remain mint fresh. The parents here are caring, if subject to frequent lapses of self-serving distraction. Nils, the eldest son, is academically clever, but disengaged; Benjamin's obsessive concerns are self-destructive rather than helpful, while Pierre, the youngest, displays cruelty when he deliberately fries a live fish. When the disputed disaster arrives, it expands outwards, like ripples on the lake, crippling the entire family. None of whom is innocent. A curiously spooky first novel. And one worth reading carefully.

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This story A curiously spooky and atmospheric family saga first appeared on The Canberra Times.