Review: ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER LIFE by Leif G.W. Persson

Another Time, Another Life - P19960fI don’t want to spoil any of the elements that made this book remarkable for me so all I’ll be sparse with my summary of the plot, which spans a 25 year period. In 1975 a group of radicals take over the German embassy in Stockholm, killing two of their hostages before blowing up the building (either accidentally or purposefully). Readers are treated to a view of the investigation into this incident and its impact on some individual police officers as well as the wider political climate. About 15 years later a man is murdered in his Stockholm apartment and we see this investigation, involving some of the same officers who were present during the German embassy case, in much more detail. A further 10 years later the Swedish version of the secret police, now headed up by one of the officers we’ve met in earlier sections of the book, is asked to look into the background of a prominent politician who is on track to be offered a very senior government post.

This book’s full title is ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER LIFE: THE STORY OF A CRIME and rarely have I come across a book with such a perfectly descriptive name. It describes in a nutshell a theme that is teased out as the layers of the story are revealed and the author explores the idea that people and societies both can be virtually unrecognisable to themselves if viewed at different points on a time scale. I particularly liked the fact that Persson got me thinking about personal and social accountability for the actions of our earlier selves but did not provide any easy answers (which is a hint that this book is not for those of you who like definitive solutions in your fiction). The other reason that the title of the book is so perfect is that it really is the story of a particular crime which has its origins and resolution many years apart but that can only be understood with full knowledge of a range of temporally separated incidents. The way that Persson structures this tale is very clever as it misdirects readers to focus their attention on a specific incident while he builds up a broader picture of a changing society that only becomes fully clear at the novel’s end. From a plotting perspective this is one of the most satisfying novels I’ve read in a very long time.

Other than this element the book breaks…or severely bends… several of my personal ‘rules’ for good reading, which makes my complete enjoyment of it something of a surprise. One of the ways the book doesn’t conform to the kind of thing I normally like to read is that it is rather slow, especially in the longest middle section. But even though I recognised as I was reading that the pace was not really my cup of tea I knew that I wouldn’t mind in this instance because of the sense I had from the outset that my patience would be rewarded. On one level you see a team of investigators – a hodgepodge of characters including a prejudiced, time-wasting buffoon and a young female officer involved in her first murder case – methodically piece together the tiny fragments of evidence left behind by the killer and eliminate dead ends. But on another level there’s a picture being developed of Swedish society, changed from its 1975 self by the collapse of the Soviet Union among other external influences. By the third act of the book – which again features a precisely detailed investigation – the social and political changes have, insidiously, become more pronounced and profound. It was really only here, in this final segment of the book, that I fully appreciated what Persson had been doing all along, though undoubtedly a more perceptive reader would have cottoned on much sooner.

Another feature of the novel that would not normally be to my taste is its remote sensibility. Its tone is almost one of reportage rather than the more standard ‘draw the reader in’ narrative of crime fiction and there are too many characters to really form any emotional connection to them, at least in the early parts of the story. But as a collective I did find them compelling – especially as I watched them change over the years. Anna Holt, whom we first meet as an inexperienced detective facing rampant sexism really comes into her own a decade later when both she and the society she is a part of have changed and she and two other female colleagues really take the lead in this time and place. Lars Johansson has a role in all three sections of the novel but it is not until the end – when he has taken over SePo (the secret police) that we get real insight into what makes him tick and how his participation in earlier events has shaped him. It’s fascinating stuff.

A brief survey of the usual spots shows that reviews of this novel tend to be polarised: readers either love it or hate it with very few indifferent opinions on display. I feel fortunate I fell into the former category but I can see why people would feel differently about the book than I did so consider yourselves warned: I’ve no idea which camp you’ll fall into if you do pick the book up. Following the advice of a good friend I opted not to read this book’s predecessor, apparently the start of a trilogy, and do not feel I was missing anything by not having grappled with the dense 600+ pages so feel safe in recommending it even if you haven’t read the earlier novel. If you like novels that challenge and inform I think you ought to give this one a go and I hope you find it as surprising a good read as I did.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Paul Norlen
Publisher Trans World Publishing [2012]
ISBN 9780307377463
Length 404 pages
Format hardcover
Book Series #2 in The Story of a Crime trilogy

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13 Responses to Review: ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER LIFE by Leif G.W. Persson

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Bernadette – This is a truly excellent review (as ever). It just goes to show you too that when it comes to a novel, slow does not have to mean ponderous and complicated does not have to mean bewildering.


  2. Kathy D. says:

    It sounds like a fantastic book. Since there are political and social issues in it, it is even more up my alley. The way you describe is makes it quite tempting. I’ll star it on my TBR list, and think of it with longing as I slog through the TBR pile, which was getting more manageable, but now is frighteningly huge. The library, friends, booksellers seem to have all come through at once.
    However, I’ll make it part of this year’s plan to read this.


  3. col says:

    Bernadette, I’ve skimmed the review to be honest – I don’t like reading too much about books I’ve already committed myself – at least in my head – to reading. I am looking forward to it though after seeing you enjoyed it.


  4. Mrs P. says:

    Thanks for this excellent review, Bernadette. I loved this book too, and would rate the author as one of my top writers. I’m so glad that he’s finally available in translation!

    What I particularly like is that he’s so ambitious in his exploration of Swedish/European history, politics and society, and the way in which he manages to pull off a complex plot with multiple strands. I always feel too that he really enjoys writing – there’s a real energy and a lovely black humour that come across extremely well.

    On the question of the first novel: I would recommend to anyone starting out that they read Another Time, Another Life first, and then tackle Between Summer’s Longing…. It IS a challenging read, but a very rewarding one in my view, and as some of the same characters appear in both, there are lots of lovely links and crossovers for readers to enjoy.


  5. Norman Price says:

    Bernadette an excellent review. I think having read ATAL and Linda as in the Linda Murder I can appreciate much more the cleverness of Between Summer’s Longing…. which I found very hard going at the time. Certainly Leif GW Persson has joined those authors who are must reads for me, because they write great characters and good plots.


  6. Thanks Norman, I will give it a go one day I think. But first I do have Linda, as in… which the librarian held especially for me when it came in. Even after just one book I can see Persson is going to be a favourite of mine too.


  7. Belle Wong says:

    Great review, Bernadette. I went straight to my library’s site and just downloaded the ebook. I’m really looking forward to it.


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