Reviewed by- Shantanu Bhattachraya
Author - Hans Koppel
What's with Scandinavian writers and crime fiction? They seem to have taken over the world lately. It all started with the late Steig Larssen and his Dragon Tattoo trilogy, of course, and ten carried on with writers like Jo Nesbo and the Inspector Harry Hole series, and now Hans Koppel with this book - She's Never Coming Back. Not to generalize, but there seems to be a particularly nasty streak to Scandinavian crime fiction - violent, horrific crimes against women, described in great detail with what can at best be described as realism, and at worst as ghoulish titillation. In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, this was the graphic description of the rape of Lisbeth Salander, the protagonist, and in this extremely popular book, the incarceration and brutalization of Ylva, a married woman with a past.
But first the good parts. The book is very fast paced, fluidly written, and gripping enough that I actually finished it in one sitting. The characters, even the good ones are all nuanced, with (sometimes fatal) flaws. There is no "hero" as you'd tend to find in a conventional crime book - no Michael Blomqvists here - and even the evil characters have redeeming features. That of course, doesn't stop them from doing the most unspeakable things, and that actually raises the question of how realistic they are. The character of Mike is also delineated well, and his growth as a person from a cuckolded doormat to a more confident, rounded individual who starts guiltily thinking he might actually be better off without his wife is very well etched. Overall Mike's character is the most rounded in the novel.
The basic story is this. A seemingly happily married mother of a 6 year old girl is abducted by an older couple and imprisoned in a soundproof basement apartment with only basic amenities and a TV screen for company. The TV screen has a camera that focuses on her house that is actually just across the road, so that she can see her family - husband and child, but is not able to contact them in any way - while they go through the trauma of facing and living through the sudden disappearance of the woman of the house. Meanwhile she is subject to the most horrific sexual degradations by the husband of the couple that kidnapped her, with active assistance of the wife. They are apparently taking revenge for some horrific act that Ylva has done while at school along with three other classmates. They are getting rid of all four of them one by one. Ylva is the last.
Things are made complicated by the fact that the marriage is not complete a happy one. Ylva has previously cheated on her husband, Mike, and still held the upper hand in the relationship because even as a cuckold, he is too dependent on her to end the marriage. Ylva is a compulsive flirt, while Mike is a wimp. After Ylva disappears, Mike is shell shocked, broken, even though his first assumption is that she had runaway with another man. It's only as time passes that he begins to think his wife may be dead and that he has to man up and be in charge now. But of course he realizes that the police now suspect him of murdering his cheating wife!
As time goes by, Mike reboots his life, gets a new girlfriend, and takes charge. And all this is viewed by an increasingly despondent and dependent Ylva on the TV screen in her basement room. Things come to a head when a journalist Calle Colin, who was also a classmate of Ylva's, starts putting some pieces together and inexorably draws the terrible, unbelievable conclusions that lead to the seemingly harmless old couple in the house opposite Mike's. But that means that it's time for them to end Ylva's existence...
At the end what you are left with is a weary sense of horror and disgust, and the fear that this might, just might, happen to you. Which is probably the secret to the success of the book, along with the prurience and salaciousness of the sexual brutality inflicted upon the captive woman. There is no real catharsis for the reader, and while the reader will finish the book fast and perhaps even breathlessly, the payoff is not as satisfying as she would like.