Book Review: The Crow Girl

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Illustration, “The Crow Girl” by werecarrot DeviantArt.

Dark, disturbing, complex and often confusing.

That is how I’ve chosen to describe The Crow Girl. But, I also see it for its stylistically written and scathing look at sexism in the workplace and the debased behaviour of men. It is certainly impeccably researched in its writing and portrayal about the perpetrator and victim. (It’s pro-victim, pro-woman – a staunchly stated stance throughout.)

“We live in the world of men,” Sofia replies. “Where Johan is worth no more than a pedophile. There no one’s worth more than a pedophile or a rapist. You can only be worth less.” Jeanette laughs, “How do you mean?” “Well if you’re a victim, you’re worth less than the pedophile himself. They’d rather protect presumed perpetrators than presumed victims. The world of men.”

The Guardian reviewed The Crow Girl as “relentlessly disturbing” and that is one solid straight-up, right-on description of it. The Crow Girl is the work of Swedish duo Jerker Eriksson and Håkan Axlander Sundquist writing under the pen name of Erik Axl Sund. They certainly give Stieg Larsson a serious run for his money. The intensity with which the level of sexual and physical abuse and torture is described is not for the weak, for certain. If you require a trigger warning sticker on your books – this obviously comes with a neon yellow Do Not Enter warning label.

“You’d rather read a badly written thriller about the horror of it [*child pornography and pedophilia] than deal with it in real life.” (*added by me)

Yet, putting aside the relentlessly disturbing descriptions of abuse, this is also a multi-layered story with a strong and serious message about the extensive sexism women face in the workforce. Jeanette Kihlberg is a third-generation police officer and holds a respected detective superintendent position. She faces constant criticism, and ridicule from her subordinates and superiors alike. Their penchant for calling her Jan instead of Jeanette is a contentious issue with her. Her superiors make quick note of her failing marriage and troubled son intoning her efforts would be better focused on being a good wife and mother first. Yet, Jeanette also knows that if she doesn’t outperform or dedicate her time to her job, she will be equally criticized for being weak and incompetent.

“If she’s right, she’s a good police officer who’s done her job and therefore deserves her salary. No more than that. But if she’s wrong she’ll be criticized and her competence will be called into question. The idea that she made a mistake because she’s a woman and by definition no good as a lead investigator will never be said out loud, but will be there between the lines.”  

Jeanette and her more trusted partner, Jens Hurtig, are in charge of solving the case with multiple murders of young boys found tortured, embalmed and castrated. As they investigate, they uncover a strange and evil sect filled with grotesque penchants for pedophilia and extreme abuse, featuring a recurring cast of characters of some of the elite in Swedish society.

“In the Dark Ages men could force a marriage by kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman. Because she’d been sexually exploited, she was forced to marry the man and at the same time he got the right of ownership to all her property. It’s about property and dependence,” he says. “Originally, rape wasn’t regarded as a crime against the woman who was the victim, but as a property crime. The rape laws came about to protect a man’ rights to valuable sexual property, either through marrying the woman off or keeping her for his own use. The woman had no say in the matter. She was merely a piece of property whose fate was decided by men. There are still traces of this medieval law of women in attitudes toward rape. She could have said no, or she did say no, but she meant yes… She just wants to get revenge on the man…. And in the same way the medieval attitude toward children is till with us,” Lars Mikkelsen concludes. “To this day, adults regard children as their own property. They punish and raise them according to their own laws.”

Jeanette brings in a psychotherapist Sofia Zetterlund to assist in creating a profile of the perpetrator. Sofia however is beginning to unravel in unsettling ways as she remembers her history of abuse. Victoria Bergman has also suffered extensively, from a very, very young age, at the hands of her sadistic father. Together they will reveal disturbing and frightening pasts as they come to terms with their personalities in their adult lives. The book will alternate between Jeanette’s, Sofia’s and another character, Victoria Bergman’s point of view.

As the story moved forward, I couldn’t help but feel confused at times. There are moments when it wasn’t very clear what was happening and to whom, or by whom, and I felt that the ending didn’t really bring together some of the threads started in Sofia and Victoria’s experiences. For instance, Sofia built a hidden room and what takes place in this room is alarming, but it is often told in a dream-like and highly confusing manner.  The ending to some parts kept me in this confused state and for me, explanations as to the WHY the sadistic and disturbing acts were committed, or why they were started. I’m sure I’m not being very clear here, but I just felt that some threads weren’t tied together as well as I hoped they would be at the end. It was because of this I gave The Crow Girl a 3.5 star rating = very good, instead of a 4 star = excellent rating.

While the translation also leaves a touch to be desired at times- it comes across, or came across for me, as a very straightforward, straight-up, direct translation, as in no embellishment or attempt to change any of the phrasing or flow was done, if that makes any sense. But once I became used to this flow of the (somewhat abrupt and choppy) delivery, I settled into it. I kind of had to didn’t I if I was going to get through over 750 pages!

Also, you should not go into this thinking it’s well-defined about “the crow girl”, or is like a Lisbeth Salander situation where her alter-personalities are clearly identified. The Crow Girl title seems more of a marketing ploy to use it as a buzzy title to match the “Girl With” Larsson novels. There isn’t a great deal of emphasis or description about this “crow girl” at all, and it is almost mentioned in passing. The crow girl’s appearance/personality, or reasoning for the personality driving “the crow girl” is so infrequently mentioned, it is questionable as to why they chose to frame the book around it. Which is what leads me to say it was grabbed merely as a way to generate interest and buzz.

(As an aside?? There was a part at the beginning of the book that described the creation of “foundations for helping children” and those being fronts to purchase children for sex and pornography- I could not, for the life of me, get out of my head “Subway Jared” at the mention of this. :-( ) How sickening. *Sorry.*

Thank you (I think?) to Penguin Random House Canada (Knopf Canada) for sending an advanced reading copy of The Crow Girl. The quotes were taken from this ARC copy.

I’m now good for needing to read anymore Scandinavian Noir crime thrillers for oh, probably a good ten years or more now. I’m going to need a break from reading for one-to-two days as well to clear my mind a bit.

Literary Hoarders Penny