For all intents and purposes, the Swedish authorities are convinced that eighteen-year-old Stella Sandell killed thirty-two year old Christopher Olsen. But did she really? And if she did, why? This is the premise behind M. T. Edvardsson’s A Nearly Normal Family, the first of his novels to be translated and released in the United States. A Nearly Normal Family is a unique blend of domestic suspense, coming-of-age narrative, and courtroom thriller.
Following a brief prologue, A Nearly Normal Family begins with this simple declaration: “We were a perfectly ordinary family.” In so many ways, this is the truest of statements, sparking images of love and loyalty ironically juxtaposed with the presence of secrets and maybe even lies.
Told using an unusual structure, M. T. Edvardsson has a masterful control over voice. A Nearly Normal Family is divided into three main sections – each told from a different family member’s viewpoint. These three characters come alive, each inimitable personality examined in depth as they recount their role in unfolding events.
Readers first get the father’s narration. In his section – the longest – much of the history of the family is documented. This backstory weaves in and around the present day timeline in which Stella has been detained at the police station. Adam Sandell is a pastor, but one with an unconventional relationship with his higher power. As one would imagine this influences almost all aspects of his life and certainly has a bearing on his relationship with his daughter, but it also imbues Adam with a moral compass that is about to be tested to its limits.
Speaking of Stella, she is given voice in the middle section of the novel. Her narrative is so well-written – clearly the viewpoint of a girl on the cusp of adulthood, while still maintaining the naiveté of youth and the rebelliousness inherent as one attempts to find a path through the world. Other than the typical judgment towards her parents, the vast majority of this section focuses on Stella herself: her dreams, her desires, her friendships, and her faults. Flashbacks intersperse with her time in lock-up – including her sessions with a prison counselor – letting readers into her world in a very intimate way while also providing necessary clues to the central mystery.
The final and shortest portion of the novel is turned over to Ulrika Sandell, Stella’s mother. It is fitting that this is the section where the trial comes to the forefront, as Ulrika is a criminal defense attorney. While each part of the novel contains revelations and shocks, it is clear that this section is the one where the long-term effects of this crime will be exposed. Between the courtroom theatrics, the last-minute testimony of surprise witnesses, and the reader’s bond with the Sandell family, this section is a juggernaut of narration, difficult to pause even for just a moment.
A Nearly Normal Family may not break new ground in terms of motive or outcome, but the method of storytelling makes it a must-read all the same. By viewing the effects of crime on the various members of one family, readers are forced to become invested in their journey and the ultimate result is a rewarding reading experience. If the rest of M. T. Edvardsson’s backlist is half as good as A Nearly Normal Family, readers will hope that more translations begin to appear sooner rather than later.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the publisher. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.