Don’t Look Back, by Karin Fossum

I read a lot of mysteries. This one is set in Norway, where Inspector Konrad Sejer investigates a disappearance and a death in a small remote village. As he begins to disentangle the lives and interactions of the people who live there, at the foot of Kollen mountain, at the end of a fjord, he discovers the secrets that connect and divide them. I always enjoy this part of a mystery: looking behind people’s public façades to discover the burdens they carry, a relationship perhaps, or the weight of the past.

I’m not sure what it was about the story that made me always aware that I was in Norway, partly the descriptions of the setting of course, but also something in the civility of the characters, the way they talked to each other. The story—the all-too-human motivations of the characters—could have happened anywhere, but there was some reticence these characters possessed that made me like them a lot.

Fossum compares the village to a “pool that is much too still”. I wonder about isolation sometimes, how being cut off can let your weirdness grow unchecked until—as my sister says—you veer off into the crazy lane. Many of these characters are isolated in one way or another, not just by location, but by divorce, disability or past trauma. Much as I love Dilbert and other mocking representations of office life, I recognise that bumping up against other people day after day helps to control some of my wilder tendencies. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to forget the rules pretty quickly. After a few days off in the woods, I forget to comb my hair, sometimes even to zip up my pants. Coming back to civilization is always an adjustment.

Robert Bly talks about the growing isolation in our culture (among other concerns) in The Sibling Society, condemning computers and television not just for making us passive but for keeping us from interacting with others. This point is only a minor part of the book, which about the immense cultural change he sees in the last few decades. His thesis is that by dismantling the hierarchy of the punitive patriarchal society that had been in place for hundreds of years, we have created a horizontal society (siblings rather than parents and children). Having grown up in a family of many siblings battling to mark out their territory and defend it, I could see his point. But I sure hope there’s a way to create a better society than the one Bly describes without going back to the old hierarchies.

I believe in the value of community, whether it’s based on a neighborhood, a church, a dance group, the ice rink, an alumni association, whatever. I believe, too, that there are ways to strengthen our communities, not just by showing up to be together, but by designing our spaces appropriately (as Jane Jacobs wrote about so well) and by treating each other with civility. I find it easier to be civil when I can remember that everyone has secrets and burdens.

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