Alex Dahl contemplates why the country considered one of the best in the world produces such compelling dark stories.
Norway – one of the richest countries on earth. Rich in natural resources and famed for its dramatic, outrageous beauty. A government that protects and supports its citizens beyond almost any other. A liberal democracy in its most functional incarnation, a place where socialist political theory actually thrives in practice. A country with state-funded childcare, where women do not have to choose between their careers and having children – ever. This is Norway.
Seen from a British perspective, some aspects of Norwegian life seem almost unfathomable – bankers and lawyers and CEOs who leave the office at 4 on the dot to pick up their kids from nursery, fathers as likely to take as much leave as their wives when a child is born, the entire country (more or less) taking the whole month of July off work. It sounds like heaven, doesn’t it? Utopia. For many people, it may well be just that. It is fascinating, however, that such a progressive, peaceful country breeds some of the darkest fiction of all.
Nordic Noir is undoubtedly having its moment. From Jo Nesbo’s genius, macabre, unflinching brutality to Henning Mankell’s gripping thrillers, to Camilla Läckberg’s evocative portrayals of dark undercurrents in sweet little Fjällbacka; the Scandis are dominating global bestselling lists with a particularly bleak brand of psychological thrillers and crime novels. But why? Why aren’t these writers writing stories about love and equality and all-round happiness? Is there something inherent in the Scandinavian psyche that draws its artists and novelists towards darkness?
I had the idea for my novel, The Boy at the Door (Head of Zeus, July 2018) while living in Sandefjord, a peaceful, maritime town just over an hour south of Oslo. Sandefjord is quietly wealthy, safe, and offers its residents a good quality of life in a beautiful sea-side setting. The Hamptons of Norway, if you will. People go to work, live in nice houses, travel frequently and enjoy plenty of outdoor activities both on the water and in the unspoilt countryside. I liked it there. I also found it boring, in an unsettling way. I found it lacking in some of the qualities that make life more challenging, and perhaps also interesting, in other places; diversity, and an open-minded attitude to how people choose to live their lives. It made me think- it can’t possibly be as uncomplicated as it seems. What really goes on behind closed doors? And so The Boy at the Door was born, a novel about a woman who will go to any lengths to keep up her façade.
When Tobias, a little boy with no parents and no traceable history turns up out of nowhere, Cecilia Wilborg’s perfect life is threatened. I am fascinated by complex characters who are neither good nor bad, but a human medley of both, and loved writing a novel set in Norway told through the points of view of three very different characters. Cecilia, the perfect wife and mother. Or … maybe she is neither? Anni, the downtrodden, disadvantaged heroin addict whose world merges with Cecilia’s with devastating consequences. And Tobias- the little boy who has somehow ended up as collateral damage in a very nasty situation.
I wanted to explore the notion that, while Norway has come incredibly far in providing a just and peaceful society for its people, there are no utopias. Poverty still exists – in fact a fairly high number of Norway’s children (over 10%) live in poverty. And while mothers are encouraged and enabled to pursue both careers and children, there is an increasing backlash in Norwegian society questioning whether this expectation places inhumane pressure on women. We are told we can have everything. But should having everything really be the objective? For Cecilia Wilborg, the social pressure she perceives becomes unbearable and she spirals into a dark, self-abusive descent as events spin out of control.
It seems the fascination with Scandinavia is here to stay – from Viking dramas to contemporary Nordic Noir thrillers, many writers, myself included, are drawn to set their scenes in these seemingly perfect societies, while uncovering unsavory truths beneath the surface. Some of this darkness may well be representative of underlying tensions in these progressive countries, and some of it may just naturally spawn from the question- can anywhere really be this perfect? Either way, it makes for compelling fiction…
What would you do for the perfect life?
Would you lie? Cheat? Or… kill?
Cecilia Wilborg has the perfect life. A handsome husband, two beautiful daughters and a luxurious home in the picture-postcard town of Sandefjord.
She’s the type of woman people envy, and she wants to keep it that way.
Then Tobias enters her life. He’s a gentle, lonely eight-year-old boy. But he threatens to bring Cecilia’s world crashing down…
Alex Dahl is a half-American, half-Norwegian author. Born in Oslo, she currently divides her time between London and Sandefjord.
Twitter: Alex Dahl