‘The Son’ is a masterful piece of storytelling. Once I started it, I put aside the other books that I was reading and gave this all my attention.
It’s a stand-alone novel about a son seeking revenge on the people who killed his father and abused him. They’re a mix of violent criminals, corrupt members of the criminal justice system and Norway’s privileged elite who have placed themselves above the law.
In lesser hands, this might be a Norwegian version of ‘Death Wish’, with the police scurrying to catch up with a vigilante while we cheer and watch him give the bad guys what they deserve. Jo Nesbø has produced something much more interesting than that. Although the ways in which the son wreaks his revenge are ingenious and violent, the main pull of the story comes from the slow reveal of the motivations of and relationship between the two main characters: the son seeking revenge and the almost ready to retire policeman hunting him.
‘The Son’ is a great example of how to write a crime thriller. The plot emerges like a train out of night-time snow, growing bigger and more impressive as it gets clearer. There’s no cheating. No belief-stretching twists, just a very complex set of relationships between some very unpleasant people that get revealed one step at a time.
The characters feel real partly because they are full of surprises. None of them come from central casting. They each have something about them that isn’t what the reader might expect to find. The son, who the press nicknames ‘The Buddha with a sword’ is a gentle, almost serene person who not only takes no pleasure from the pain and death he delivers but often throws up immediately afterwards.
The ready to retire policeman is clever, unafraid of authority and determined to find out what’s really going on, He’s also deeply flawed, has his own agenda and is carrying a great deal of guilt for the mess he’s made of his life and the impact that’s had on his wife. His newly-arrived ambitious young partner turns out to be both honourable and committed.
The supporting cast is also memorable: the lonely little boy who watches the action through binoculars from his bedroom window, the ex-con who wants to give up modifying guns for gangsters and go back to restoring Harley Davison motorcycles, the deputy governor of a prison who sees himself in a positive light while sinking deeper and deeper into corruption, the woman who runs the hostel for junkies and hungers for something she can’t name and has never experienced.
Then there are the twists and turns. I thought I had the whole thing figured out several times. It wasn’t so much that I was wrong, it’s just that there was always more. It reminded of Dylan Thomas saying ‘It has more skins than an onion and every one of them will make you cry’.
Finally, my reading pleasure was greatly increased by Sean Barrett’s wonderful narration. I strongly recommend the audiobook version of ‘The Son’ if you can. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of Sean Barrett’s performance.