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Monday, January 31, 2011

Snow Angels, by James Thompson ($14)(c2009)

James Thompson is an ex-American who married a Finnish woman and has lived in Finland for a decade. His character, Kari Vaara, is a Finnish policeman married to an American woman, Kate. Not surprisingly, then, Kate's voice is clear and touching. Her frustration with an alien environment and difficult language vies with her determination to succeed and her love for Kari. Whether it's Thompson's story, too, is not relevant because he gets Kate's character just right. But her story is a sidebar to the grim and gruesome main plot.

An immigrant Somali actress is found butchered in a snowfield on a reindeer farm in the small community in the Arctic Circle where Kari and Kate live. There is an obvious suspect, Kari's first wife's boyfriend, the man for whom she left Kari. However, he refuses to recuse himself from the case and the complications multiply when other people Kari knows, including his father, might be involved. The plot was fine, the characters were interesting, and even the present tense writing didn't jar me as much as I thought it would, but there was something missing for me. I thought there were several occasions when it was unnecessarily gruesome. It didn't advance the plot, it wasn't an essential element of the murderer's character, it was distracting. Thompson's writing was fine, but it didn't elevate Kari's character to the next level. (I know, easy for a non-writer to say!)

The true gem to be found in this book is Thompson's presentation of the Finnish people. Although this mostly takes a look at the dark side of human nature, which is certainly not limited to Finland alone, Thompson does a great job giving us insight into what it must be like living in almost total darkness for a great swatch of the year. What cultural and psychological adjustments must people have to make to get along?

Peter Hoeg, author of Smilla's Sense of Snow, is quoted as saying that Snow Angels is "fast, brutal," and that about sums it up. (I can hear the movie cameras charging up right now.)

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