On the heels of his successful crime series, Leo Junker, October is the Coldest Month is Swedish author Christoffer Carlsson’s first novel for young adults.
Carlsson was raised in Halmstad on the west coast of Sweden. He has a PhD in criminology from Stockholm University, and he’s extensively published in this academic field. Trying his hand at his first novel at age 11, Carlsson was a published fiction author by 23. Five novels and eight years on, his first foray into young adult fiction is executed with a similar distinction to his other work.
The novel opens with an introduction to teenager Vega Gillberg, when police arrive on her doorstep looking for her brother. She knows he was involved in a violent crime – but she doesn’t know who else was.
Powerful but simple language is what makes this a strong novel. It’s the kind of book where a second reading could pick up as much as the first. Carlsson’s descriptions, while modest and simplistic, play on the sensory experiences of the reader, evoking an emotional reaction that ebbs and flows with the plot.
The novel begins as a day begins, with phrasing that conveys an open and expansive landscape. “Morning went on, but no sun was visible; instead, the sky was white as milk and the clouds were very high,” Carlsson writes.
Then, using his poetic style of prose, he quickly moves from a feeling of fullness and light to a hard contrast of darkness and emptiness:
“Malte drained his glass of whiskey.
A dead person’s hand, shadows in the darkness.”
As the crime unfolds and the storyline develops, a catatonic lifelessness and numbness starts to evolve through the characters’ interactions with each other. As two characters greet each other, another watches on with “a dullness in his eyes, like the sound when you beat your fist on a brick wall.”
In the midst of a chaotic crime investigation, this feeling of calm slowness is a stark juxtaposition. In many sentences it’s as if the stillness smothers trauma:
“… she seemed strangely beautiful, even though her posture showed that life hadn’t turned out the way she’d wanted. It filled me with hopelessness.”
In this, Carlsson achieves a certain claustrophobia with his writing; this is what causes the reader to feel real anxiety alongside the crime narrative.
Colours also play an important role in Carlsson’s writing, and the novel contrasts white and black throughout. This is noticeable in examples like “the white sky was reflected on the still, black water” and where past events become murky and memories dark, new pains are “violent and white and impossible to deal with”.
After lightness in the novel’s opening, words like “pale grey” and “frosty” are used more frequently toward the novel’s end. Then Carlsson returns to the symbolic bright morning light as the novel concludes: “The dead grass bowed in the field, moving in waves, but there was the thinnest, thinnest streak of morning light on the horizon.”
While language is paramount in this novel, the characters are also well executed. The story focuses on protagonist, 16-year-old Vega. She’s a strong character, and the novel is as much about her growing up, and opening up, as it is about the crime she’s hellbent on solving. There are strong sexual undertones throughout, and they work in the context of Vega struggling to understand her sexuality and desires.
Vega is also astute in her observation of other characters, in many instances blunt and scathing, as these characters are fleshed out through her eyes.
Nearing the end of the book, Vega also drops in an observation I wasn’t expecting. “It was as if men had the right to take even revenge from you,” she says. In this, Carlsson adds another element to what is a deceptively layered book. He’s addressed women’s suffering at the hands of men, and the complicated ways to navigate male-female relationships in a domestic setting.
As a crime novel it has enough twists to keep the reader hooked, and the right amount of characters are introduced for what is a short book. Beyond its genre, it’s elegant in style and also – subtly – quite confronting in parts, effectively stepping into a second genre as a coming-of-age story. Overall, it’s an excellent young adult debut.
October is the Coldest Month is available from 3 July 2017.