Excellent novels coming out of Scandinavia continue to enjoy international popularity at the moment and this terrific debut by Joakim Zander (2013) is further testament as to why. An unashamed spy thriller, “The Swimmer” exploits for the reader a dynamic plot, which links strong characters across a complex web of time and place, grappling with circumstances typically not of their making. Certainly there are echoes of the ‘Nordic noir’, particularly when a key character (Klara Walldéen) heads home to St. Anna’s Outer Archipelago in Northern Sweden, but the tale spins effortlessly between contemporary Europe and the USA, taking in historical, interlinked events in Afghanistan, Syria and Kurdistan along the way. Clearly the author has utilised his experience as a former lawyer working in the European Union to create vividly convincing scenes within the corridors of power in Brussels, where the reader finds Klara employed as assistant to an ambitious MEP. However, the involvement of a lobbyist and unidentified security services develops a wonderfully clandestine backdrop where ‘the truth’ is continuously manipulated to maintain a plausible public narrative. Indeed it is the grinding of tectonic political forces, which threaten to engulf relatively powerless individuals and discard them as tolerable collateral damage.
Unknown to her, Klara’s childhood spent in happy, obscure isolation with her grandparents was intended to shield her from the loss of her Swedish mother and the absence of her anonymous American father. Moreover, it was calculated to put her beyond the reach of those with a vested interest in silencing witnesses to war-time atrocities. But, after completing her studies abroad at the LSE, as Klara starts out on a promising career, new and present dangers begin to surface and an unseen guardian begins to stir. Aside from the thrilling action and the growing body count, the book offers an interesting take on Klara’s past and present relationships, some apparently disposable, others intense and enduring and the testing of those ties amid life-threatening chaos.
The swimmer has lapsed into an uneasy retirement and sought to protect his daughter’s life chances from the taint of his secretive past. The fervent desire of forces wanting to shine a light on the barbarous activities committed in war must overcome those equally intent on burying the past, to maintain the current fragile peace, albeit perpetrators walk free. For those caught up in the ongoing aftermath, is it better to occupy the moral high ground, or to fashion a means to survive?
Joakim Zander has created a compelling book, threaded with tough female characters, hardened by life in the far north and an unexpected challenge for the macho professional groundlings. The author also poses subtle moral dilemmas, which permeate the book. However, though the twisting plot deliberately frays the nerves, it also delivers a satisfying denouement and a thoughtful afterburn, which is so often the hallmark of an exceptional read.