The Washington Post
Brokenby Karin Fossum, Charlotte Barslund
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Awoman wakes up in the middle of the night. A strange man is in her bedroom. She lies there in silence, paralyzed with fear.The woman is an author and the man one of her characters, one in a long line that waits in her driveway for the time when she’ll tell their stories. He is so desperate that he has resorted to breaking into her house and demanding that she begin. He, the author decides, is named Alvar Eide, forty-two years old, single,works in a gallery. He lives a quiet, orderly life and likes it that way—no demands, no unpleasantness. Until one icy winter day when a young drug addict, skinny and fragile, walks into the gallery. Alvar gives her a cup of coffee to warm her up. And then one day she appears on his doorstep. Broken is an unconventional, subtle, and disturbing mystery from a master of the form.
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Read an Excerpt
SEE THEM in the porch light.
A long line of people waits on the drive outside my house; on closer inspection they turn out to be a mixture of the old and the young, men, women, and children. They are patient, their heads are bowed, they are waiting for their stories to be told, and it is I who will tell them—I am the author. I watch them for a long time, partly hidden behind my curtain, all the time thinking about the challenge ahead of me. But I am tired now; it is midnight. Tomorrow maybe, I think, yawning. I need a few hours’ sleep. It is hard work to give life to new characters every single day; it is not as if I am God. I am just a tired middle-aged woman trying to keep going.
I watch the ones whose faces are in the shadows. There are so many of them, they are hard to count, and what happens to the ones whose stories I never get to tell? Who will look after them? I press my nose against the window. My breath makes the glass steam up, and I draw a little heart. At the front of the line is a young woman cradling a small bundle, a baby swaddled in a blue towel. She clutches the baby to her chest, her face racked with guilt. What can be haunting her so terribly? She is awfully young, emaciated, early twenties probably. She is wearing a dark coat with a hood, and she wears high-heeled ankle boots. She stands as if rooted to the spot, with the baby in her arms and her head bowed to her chest. Behind her stands a man. He looks somewhat puzzled, and his hands are folded. An unassuming man in his early forties, with thinning hair, he stoops slightly. He is not a religious man, though he might be praying to me; it seems as if he is beckoning me, that he has attached himself to the fringes of my consciousness. Behind him stands a very old man, scrawny and withered. There is no glint in his eyes; he has one foot in the grave and nobody notices him. But God knows he needs to be noticed, I think, and scrutinizes him. Inside his concave chest beats the noblest of hearts. Behind him is a woman, a little thin, graying hair. Could she be me? Will I tell my own story one day?
I realize that it is midnight, and I make an effort to tear myself away. I have to turn my back on them. I’m exhausted. I have drunk a bottle of burgundy and I have just taken a Zyprexa for anxiety, a Cipralex for depression, and a zopiclone to make me sleep, so I need my rest now. But it is so hard to turn my back on them—they continue to disturb me. At times they stare at my window in an intense and compelling way. How many of them are there? I lean against the window and try to count them. More than eleven: that means it will take me at least eleven years to get through them all. At the same time I know that as soon as I have dispatched the young woman with the baby and the man with his hands folded, new characters will arrive in a steady stream. I don’t believe it will ever stop. This is how my life has turned out. I walk down the stairs every morning, then across the floor to the computer, where I delve into the fate of a new character, oblivious to everything around me. Time stands still: I feel neither hunger nor thirst, and I am fixated by the blue glare from the computer. After several hours’ work I finally resurface. The telephone rings and brings me back to life. It is busy outside, a real world with laughter and joy, with death, misery, and grief. While I am absorbed by fiction, I pull the strings like a puppeteer; I make things happen. It’s a passion and a lifelong obsession.
My cat appears on the veranda; I let him inside, where it is warm. This agile gray animal is one of the most beautiful creatures in the world, I think. He walks across the parquet floor silently, softly, ¬elegantly.
“Are you sleeping on my bed tonight?” I ask.
He fixes his green eyes on me and starts to purr. Then he heads for the stairs. Together we walk up the fifteen steps to the first floor and into my bedroom. It is small, cool, and dark. There is my bed, my bedside table with the blue lamp. An alarm clock, an open book. I open up the window, and the cool November air wafts in. By the bed is an old armchair; I place my clothes on the armrest. Then I slip under the duvet, curl up like a child. The cat jumps up, settles at my feet, a warm, furry ball of wool.
For a moment everything is wonderfully quiet, but then faint noises start to come through the window, rustling from the cluster of trees outside. A car drives by; its headlights sweep, ghostlike, across my window. The house sits solidly on its foundation, resting like an ancient warrior. I close my eyes. Normally I am asleep the second my head hits the pillow and I remember nothing else. But now I am disturbed by a sound. Someone is trying to open the front door; I’m not hearing things. My eyes open wide and I struggle to breathe. Fear surges through my body because this is really happening. The sound was very clear; it could not be misinterpreted. Did I forget to lock the door?
Frantically I look at my alarm clock. The green digits glow; it is past midnight. The cat raises his head and I sense his movement through the duvet. The noise is not a figment of my imagination, because cats are never wrong. What happens next is terrifying and eerie. The stairs creak; I hear slow, hesitant steps. I lie rigid in my bed. Then all goes quiet. I’m breathing too fast. My fists are clenched, and I brace myself, lying still, listening to the silence, praying to God that I’m hearing things. It could have been the trees outside, or a deer, perhaps, stepping on dry twigs. I calm myself down and close my eyes.
Finally the sleeping pill kicks in; I drift off and only a tiny fragment of my consciousness is present. That is when I awake startled. Someone is in the room; I sense another human being. A pulse, a smell, breathing. The cat arches his back and sniffs the darkness, and in the dim gray light from the window I see the outline of a man. He takes a few steps toward me and sits down on the chair next to my bed. I hear the creaking of the chair and the rustle of clothing. For several long minutes I lie very still under the duvet, every single cell in my body trembling. Neither of us speaks or moves, times passes, my eyes acclimate to the dark.
A man is in the chair by my bed. The light reflects in his moist eyes. For a moment I am paralyzed. When I force myself to break the silence, my voice is devoid of strength.
“What do you want?” I whisper.
It takes a while before he answers, but I hear how he shifts in the chair; I hear his breathing and the sound of his shoes scraping against the floor. Finally he clears his throat cautiously, but no words come. Not someone to take the initiative, I remain immobile, but my fear is so overpowering that my entire system is on the verge of collapse. Terror rips through my body: my heart contracts violently, then stops, then beats three or four wild beats. Again a soft cough, and finally he says in a deep and modest voice:
“I do apologize for intruding.”
Silence once more, for a long time. I fight my way out of my comatose state and half sit up in bed. I squint through the darkness at him, only a meter away.
“What do you want?” I repeat.
He struggles to find the words, squirms a little in the chair.
“Well, I would hate to be a nuisance. I have absolutely no wish to intrude . . . I’m not normally like this. But the thing is, I’ve been waiting for so long and I just can’t bear it any longer.”
There is a note of desperation in his voice. I frown, confused. I consider the situation from an outsider’s point of view: a middle-aged woman, a cat, and a mysterious intruder.
“What are you waiting for?” I ask. My voice is back to normal. I might be about to die, but then I have always been aware of that.
Yet again he changes his position in the chair, crossing one leg over the other after first hitching up the fabric to prevent creases. This maneuver of his calms me: This is how an educated man behaves, I think. But I am still panting, my body’s need for oxygen constantly increasing.
“I’m waiting for my story to be told.”
I fall back into my bed. For several long seconds I lie there, feeling my heartbeat return to normal.
“Turn on the light,” I ask him softly.
He does not reply, does not stir; his body is still in the chair. So I raise myself up on my elbow and turn on the light. I stay in this position, watching him in amazement. He sits with his hands folded. The light causes him to blink fearfully, and his gray eyes avoid looking at me.
“You’ve jumped the line,” I say.
He bows his heavy head in shame, then nods.
“I recognize you,” I say. “You’re second. There is a woman with a baby in front of you.”
“I know!” he groans, his face contorting with pain. “There’s always someone ahead of me—I’m used to that. But I can’t bear it any longer. I’m exhausted. You have to tell my story now—you have to start this morning!”
I sit upright and smooth the duvet. I lean against the headboard. The cat jumps up and listens, his ears perked up. He does not know how to react either.
“You’re asking me to make you a promise,” I say. “I can’t. The woman has been waiting too. She has been waiting for many years, and she is deeply unhappy.”
He rocks restlessly in the chair. Moves his hands to dust off the knees of his trousers, and then his fingers rush to the knot of his tie, which is immaculate.
“Everyone is unhappy,” he replies. “Besides, you can’t measure unhappiness—the pain is equally great in all of us. I have come forward to ask for something, to save my own soul. I’m using the last of my strength and it has cost me a great deal.” And then in a thin voice: “Should that not be rewarded?”
Filled with conflicting emotions, I give him a look of resignation. I’m not a naturally commanding person, but I try to be firm.
“If you have been waiting that long,” I say, “you can wait another year. The woman with the baby will be done in twelve months.”
He is silent for a long time. When he finally speaks, his deep voice is trembling.
“This assumes that you live that long,” he says eventually, his voice is very meek. He does not look me in the eye.
“What do you mean?” I ask, shocked.
“I mean,” he says anxiously, “you might die. Then I’ll have no story—I’ll have no life.”
The thought that I might die soon does not upset me. I live with it daily, and every morning I’m amazed that I’m still alive—that my heart beats, that the sun still rises.
“But then, that applies to all of you,” I reply in a tired voice. “I can’t save everyone. Have you seen the old man behind you in the line? He is way past eighty. He is valuable to me. The very old know more than most people. I want to hear what he has to say.”
He gives a heavy, prolonged sigh and glances at me, a sudden touch of defiance in his gray eyes.
“But I’ve summoned the courage,” he says. “I’ve come all the way to your bedroom, I’ve taken action. I’m begging you! And I want you to know something; this is terribly difficult for me. It goes against my nature, because I’m a very humble man.”
I watch him more closely now. His eyes are downcast once again, his face tormented. His hair is thinning and a little too long, it sticks out inelegantly at the back. He is wearing a slate gray shirt, a narrow black tie, and a black jacket. Gray trousers, well-polished black shoes with even laces. He is clean and neatly groomed, but old-fashioned-looking, a man from another age.
“A very humble man,” he repeats.
I exhale; my breath turns into a sigh.
“I’m completely awake now,” I say. “I won’t get any sleep tonight.”
Suddenly he cheers up. The pitch of his voice rises.
“Well,” he says excitedly, “if you make the decision now that you will get up in the morning and start my story, then you will be able to sleep—I’m certain of that. You need structure and I can give you that.”
“And what about the woman with the child?” I ask. “She’s first in line, you know, and has been for a long time. It’s extremely hard to pass people over. I can’t handle that.”
At that he looks me straight in the eye. It comes at a price, his breathing quickens.
“I think it is too late for her anyway,” he says quietly.
I reach for the cat, draw him to me, hold him tight.
“What do you mean, ‘too late’?”
He bows his head.
“I think the child is dead.”
I shake my head in disbelief.
“Why do you say that? Have you spoken with her?”
Once again he brushes his trousers. I imagine it is a kind of reflex he cannot suppress.
“You write crime novels, don’t you?” he mumbles. “So the child will have to die. Her story is about the child’s fate, about what happened to it. Did she find her child dead? Did she kill it herself? Was the child killed by its father? Was it ill? Things like that. She would get picked by someone else anyway. Whereas I’m not interesting like her—no one else would pick me. Do you see?”
His voice is timid and pleading.
“You’re wrong,” I state.
“No, I’m not. Please don’t tell me that I have to go outside again. Please don’t ask me to go back to that wretched line!”
His voice falters.
“I know lots of people who would pick you if you came their way,” I say, “greater writers than I.”
“But this is where I’ve come,” he says, hurt.
“Why?” He shrugs. “You must have summoned me. I was driven here—it’s already been three years. For three long years I’ve been waiting under the porch light.”
“I never summon anyone,” I say in a firm voice. “I haven’t invited you. Suddenly you appeared as number two in the line. And yes, I’ve known you were there for a long time, I’ve seen you very clearly, but there needs to be some sort of system; otherwise I lose control.”
The cat has curled up once more in my lap and is purring, un¬perturbed.
“What’s the cat’s name?” he asks suddenly.
“Gandalf,” I reply. “Gandalf, after Tolkien’s wizard.”
“And what about me?” he goes on. “Give me a name too, please, if nothing else.”
“What if I have a cruel fate in mind for you?” I ask him. “Painful, difficult? Filled with shame and despair?”
He juts out his chin. “I thought we might have a little chat about that. And agree on the bigger picture.”
I narrow my eyes and give him a dubious look.
“So you’re going to interfere too?” I shake my head. “That’s not going to happen, I’m very sorry. But I’m in charge here. No fictitious character ever stands by my bed telling me what to do. That’s not how it works.”
“All the same,” he pleads, “hasn’t it occurred to you that I might make your job easier?”
“How?” I reply skeptically.
“There will be two of us making the decisions. If you get stuck I can tell you what I would like to happen. Don’t push me away—think about it, please.”
“I never get stuck,” I declare. “I need to sleep now. It’s nighttime and I need to get up early.”
“A name, please!” he begs. “Is that too much to ask?”
“Right. I’ll name you,” I say, “and before I know it, you’ll want something else. A profession. Somewhere to live. A girlfriend.”
“No girlfriend,” he says quickly.
“Really? Why not?”
He becomes evasive once more. He falters. “I don’t need one. Let’s keep it simple.”
“So you’re already interfering?”
Suddenly he looks wretched. “I’m sorry, so sorry. I didn’t mean to, but I’m scared! If you die soon, I will be lost for eternity.”
“I’m not going to die,” I comfort him.
“You are! All of us out there are worried about it, and for good reason. Several members of your family have died from cancer. You smoke forty cigarettes a day, you drink too much red wine in the evenings, you’re addicted to millions of pills, you eat too little, you work too hard, so you’re clearly not going to live to be an old lady.”
I ponder this. “Very well, you may be right. I can only do what I do, and death is never convenient. However, I’m only fifty-one and you are second in line.”
“Name me,” he pleads again.
I pull up my knees. My shoulders are freezing cold, and my temples are throbbing.
“Come closer to the light.”
He gets up and lifts the chair; he moves closer to the bedside table. He sits down again and folds his hands.
“You have a sensitive face,” I say, inspecting him. “You’re gentle, poetic, with a tendency toward melancholy. You come from a small, unassuming family of hard-working people. They all have this humility, this awareness of nuances, with the exception of your mother, perhaps—I’m not quite sure about her. I can picture them: they are fair-skinned, and you can see their veins like fine green threads.”
He pulls up the sleeve of his jacket and studies his wrist.
“You have large gray eyes,” I go on. “However, your gaze is often defensive; if anyone talks to you, you’ll look away. Your hair is thinning; it bothers you because in your own way you’re vain despite your self-proclaimed modesty. You have dreams—they will never come true. Yet you’re patient. You’ve always been patient. Right up until now.”
“And my name?”
“Give me a little time. Names are very important. If I rush it will be wrong, and I doubt that you’ll be content with just anything.”
“I’m sorry I interrupted you,” he says. “Please continue, I’m listening.”
“Your hands,” I state, “are really quite small. Your shoe size is thirty-nine, which is small for a grown man. You’re clean, you watch what you eat, and you’re good at saving money. You’re never ill, and you drink moderately. You have a green thumb; you’re very fond of music. You notice how the light changes outside your window. You watch people and they fascinate you in a way you don’t understand, yet you don’t feel connected to them. You never approach anyone; you live your life without involving anyone else. You never complain, you don’t shout, you never object to anything, you never get stressed; you make yourself go on like a carthorse. What do you think of Torstein?”
He gives me an uncertain look. “It’s not terribly poetic.”
I think again. Names fly through my mind and with each one I observe him closely. I hold the name up to his face, trying to make it fit.
“I would have to agree with you. Besides, Torstein is a strong man’s name, resourceful and decisive. And I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you’re a bit spineless.”
He bows his head and blushes scarlet in the light from the lamp on the bedside table.
“You must forgive me,” I say, “but it was your idea to enter my house, and I’m in charge here.”
“I know, I know. I will take what I’m given—I mean that from the bottom of my heart.”
“Then let’s continue.”
I think again, close my eyes.
“You sleep well at night, like a baby. You get up early and are always equally content with each new day. However, this serenity of yours, this meticulousness, is actually very fragile. No one is allowed to disturb it, enter into it, or distract you. You need to be in control and have a clear overview of absolutely everything that will ¬happen.”
New names fly by. Names full of gravity and poetry.
“How about Alvar?” I suggest.
“Is that a name?” He looks at me quizzically.
“Of course it’s a name. Though better known in Sweden than here in Norway. Attractive too, in my opinion. Think it over.”
“I am. What about my surname? I suppose I’ll be given one of those too?”
“Of course. Personally I favor monosyllabic names. Like Krohn. Or Torp. But I want to give you more than that.” I close my eyes again. Search through myriad names.
“Your surname is Eide,” I say with absolute conviction.
“Alvar Eide,” he says quietly. “That’s good. I’m very grateful.”
He straightens his back and smiles.
“So you’ll be starting tomorrow?”
I rest against the headboard and shrug with resignation. Never in all my life have I experienced anything like this.
“Because now that I am visible to you, you won’t be able to wait. I’ll have a word with the woman holding the dead child. I’m sure we can come to an understanding.”
“Well, if you’ve been reassured now, would you kindly leave and find your place in the line? I need some sleep. It’s very late now.”
“Yes!” He nods adamantly. His gray eyes have lit up. “There’s just one small thing.” He raises his hand; he is begging. “Am I a good person?”
I smile and shake my head at this. The way he is looking at me makes me laugh, and I concede that he has won.
“Of course you’re a good person, Alvar Eide—you’re as good as gold. Now leave me alone. I’m tired.”
Finally he gets up; he carefully puts the chair back in its place. Turns off the light, bows politely, and exits. I hear his footsteps on the staircase, the door being closed. I put my head on my pillow, feeling dizzy.
“Goodness gracious me,” I say into the darkness. “What do you make of this, puss?”
The cat is asleep, his paws twitching. He is hunting.
“Gandalf,” I whisper, “listen to this. There is mutiny in the line outside the house!”
The cat sleeps on determinedly. I turn on to my side and pull up my knees. What does it mean that I no longer have an orderly system? This has never happened before. What will it be like if they start arguing about the sequence? Is there a moment far into the future when this flow of people ends? Where will I turn then? Will I have to settle for people who have created their own lives, real people? Lives I have no control over, lives I cannot shape the way I always have? I can find no peace. I don’t like this night, this turn that my life has taken. I’m used to a certain amount of control, a certain order. But now Alvar Eide has wedged himself into my life. I turn to the wall and I want to go to sleep, but I’m troubled by words flying through my head. I want to enter the room where Alvar lives, but the door is shut and locked. I don’t find the key until the early-morning hours.
Meet the Author
KARIN FOSSUM is the author of the internationally successful Inspector Konrad Sejer crime series. Her recent honors include a Gumshoe Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for mystery/thriller. She lives in Norway.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I just read Broken in one sitting. The writing and development of the main character keep you turning the pages. As I learned about him, I recognized so many of those character traits in myself.It provoked deep thought about the character and how I could easily identify with him and his lifestyle. I could feel his emotions and his pain and just wanted to keep reading to find out how his character changes and to think about the lesson to be learned here. Written in an unusual style, this book keeps you riveted, however, it is not a crime or a mystery as defined by genre. It's more a study of a human being's weaknesses and what it takes to overcome them....like a self-help/psycholodgical theme. I highly recommend this book to someone looking for a different type of read that engages you to be introspective!
Only reason I didn't give this book 5 stars is for the 1st chapter, it started slow- but then hold on! Totally unique story style- Loved it! Author & lead character story..... then lead charater story....... translated from another language into English... This author is wonderful! She usues her own life- puts it into her story - makes you think about your own life & ideas on it........ You care about the few people & want it all to be okay... in the end, is it really?? GREAT BOOK! Not a big book- Big Thoughts though! BRAVO! Maybe I should give it 5 stars........ Enjoy!
I have enjoyed several books by Karin Fossum. My favorite is "The Indian Bride. Broken was so boring.
If you like a book with a plot that SLOWLY develops, then this is the book for you. It is big on character development and small on plot. You can actually feel the anxiety that the main character is experiencing when his orderly life becomes unraveled. You just want to shake him into action but this is his story and must unfold at his own pace.