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A novel with a conscience
on 9 July 2013
Only One Life by Danish author Sara Blaedel is not so much a whodunit, I wouldn't even say it's a whydunit; it is, to put it gently, a "what the heck happened?" kind of book. This is one of those novels that have many layers. The first layer is made of facts, the second of hidden truths, the third is composed primarily by lies, the fourth talks about the social background and so forth.
As in her previous outstanding novel Call Me Princess, Blaedel is more interested in exploring the tortured psyches of her subjects than providing the reader with a fast-paced narrative. She wants to tell the story behind the story, to see where people are coming from and where they dream of going. She doesn't seem to seek to impress us with her twists and turns in the plot, as much as to make us think; to think about the world that's changing all around us, to consider seriously the issue of immigration and explore our capabilities to adapt in these new realities.
Her heroes and heroines are not extraordinary people; they are as common as they come. They live ordinary lives, lives full of small joys and great sorrows, lives which even at the best of times look unfulfilled, robbed of any potential for happiness. Samra is a girl that arrived in a new land, with different habits, but who tries hard to adapt, despite the fact that her family doesn't seem to want her to do so. Dicta, her best friend, leads a mostly carefree life, since she has rich parents who more or less let her be, even though she's no older than fifteen. Louise Rick, the cop, is a highly intelligent yet sad woman, who tries to find solace in her job and in helping other people out. Her friend, Camilla, is a stubborn journalist, who's trying to recover from a recent break-up, do the best she can about her son Markus, and of course excel at her work.
There are quite a few other people -mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, friends and lovers, in this story- and there's drama all around. And that's exactly what makes the book so special. The people are the story, not the crimes. The crimes just serve to kick-start the process of this long journey of discovery that will lead the main characters time and again into dark places, while it will also show them that in the end not everything is lost, there's still hope in the world. Blaedel tackles the big issues of today with an open mind, and in doing so she has to give her heroes a human face. Nobody is perfect. They all have their weaknesses, they all every now and then do things that they regret and they all try desperately to understand each other, even though sometimes there's no way of making that happen.
How can people from a Muslim country find their way and start a new life in a world so much different from their own? How do they forget their traditions and their codes of honor? How do they integrate into an immoral, at least in their eyes, society? And how can the locals accept these outsiders? Do they feel threatened by them or do they really welcome them as who they truly are? Could it be that the only things that keep society from falling apart, of social tensions rising, are observing some codes of silence and every now and then turning a blind eye?
It takes a crime to burst this ideal world bubble, and another to bring it to the brink of destruction.
Only One Life is a good police procedural that tells a great story, but most of all it's a novel with a conscience, and you can't say that for every book that hits the bookshelves these days. A lot of those books try to feed on the fear of people for the unknown, while this one just tries to understand that fear and put it into context. A job well done.