I have to admit to picking this up because it’s Swedish. I read it during what seemed to be a period of deep virtual immersion in Scandiland – watching the first series of The Legacy re-watching Borgen and reading Martin Booth’s excellent The Almost Nearly Perfect People squarely aimed at people like me who have a tendency to think of Scandinavia as a Nordic Nirvana. Håkan Nesser is well-known as a crime writer and I’m not a crime reader however A Summer with Kim Novak is billed as ‘combining coming-of-age and crime’. To my mind, it’s very much more the former than the latter: there is a crime but it’s not the point of the book.
Erik, our narrator, was fourteen years old during 1962 or the summer of The Terrible Thing as he refers to the event that’s frequently foreshadowed in the first part of the novel. His mother is dying and his father decides that Erik should go to the family summer house with his older brother, Henry, and a colleague’s son, Edmund, also coping with a sick mother. A sophisticated sharp dresser – at least to a fourteen-year-old – with an eye for beautiful women, Henry has given up his journalist job to write a book. Once established in Genesaret, it becomes clear that Henry’s fiancée will not be joining them as planned, and soon Ewa Kaludis comes visiting. Erik’s summer term had been brightened by the arrival of Ewa – the spitting image, as you’ve probably guessed, of glamorous film star Kim Novak, and the fiancée of the local handball hero – who rides her smart red Puch around town, charming all, not least her eager pupils. Over the summer Erik and Edmund become close, bonding over their ailing mothers and their burgeoning lust for Ewa. All changes after the night of The Terrible Thing: the two boys will not see each other for many years when it becomes clear that each has taken a very different path.
Given Nesser’s celebrated reputation as a crime writer it’s entirely possible that readers primed for a police procedural might be disappointed in this novel but for me it worked well. Nesser captures the awkwardness of adolescence beautifully. Erik and Edmund’s troubled backgrounds cement an entirely believable bond between them, each taking solace in the other. Despite all that’s happening at home they manage to have what both are agreed is a ‘brilliant summer’: living a life free of adult restraint, rowing on the lake, fantasising about Ewa, forging a friendship which in the normal turn of events would last for life. Nesser is particularly good on the strangulated emotions which surround Erik’s mother – he and his father communicate in clichés, both terrified of what’s happening. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the dénouement, cleverly unfolded though it was, but I’ll leave you to decide about that – for me the path to it in the final section of the book seemed a little improbable. Coming-of-age rather than crime novel, then, and if that’s how you judge it a thoroughly successful one.