If I had read Shame by Karin Alvtegen before I read her novel Missing, I would never have read another thing by her. I hated this book and found it left a very bad taste in my mouth when I got to the end.
Shame tells the stories of two Swedish women, Maj-Britt, a morbidly obese woman who lives alone and relies on care workers to provide for all of her needs, and Monika, a well-respected doctor with no self-esteem or personal life. Each is living with the burden of an assumed responsibility for the death of a loved one, which causes them constant mental dispair and crippling shame and leads them both to life decisions which only serve to push them to reject the good things that come into their lives as they believe themselves to be wholly undeserving.
Maj-Britt comforts herself with food and uses her extreme obesity to separate herself from others, both physically and psychologically. She was raised by ultra-conservative Christian parents in a close-knit religious community and from an early age was persecuted both mentally and physically for having impure thoughts and touching herself. She falls in love and marries a boy from another congregation and is shunned by her parents. When her daughter is born blind, then dies in a fall down un-gated stairs, Maj-Britt takes this as a sign that she will never be deserving of love or care and the wanton, wicked feelings of her youth are the reason she will be forever punished.
Monika is the perfect daughter in a perfect family, but one weekend she and her brother are spending the night at a friend’s house and Monika forgets to turn off the sauna. The house burns to the ground and though Monika escapes, her brother and others are killed in the conflagration. Neither Monika, nor her mother can ever forgive her for the sin of being a survivor, so she compensates by becoming a slave to her mother’s devotion to her dead son and a dishrag of a person who can never claim her own feelings and needs.
Flash forward to present day—Maj-Britt receives a letter from her childhood best friend Vanja, who is serving a 17-year sentence for murdering her abusing husband and their children. She is convinced that Vanja is taunting her with her failures and forcing her to remember her childhood sins. Maj-Britt’s caretaker, Ellinor, is concerned about her health and offers bring in a doctor to examine her and find the source of her extreme pain. Maj-Britt comes to the illogical conclusion that Vanja and Ellinor are colluding to humiliate her.
Monika, on the other hand, has met Thomas, a wonderful man who professes to love her. She must leave him for a weekend management seminar and in a bizarre twist, she switches places in the carpool with humble, heroic Matthias—because of course she must return home early to ferry her mother to the cemetery—and Matthias is killed in a car crash, leaving behind a handicapped wife and infant daughter. Monika determines this means she must break up with Thomas and give all of her savings (and more) to Matthias’ widow and orphan.
In the midst of all of this, Monika is the doctor Ellinor recruits to come examine Maj-Britt. I expected that the two of them would bond and support each other and bring the novel to a satisfying conclusion. I was wrong. Maj-Britt blackmails Monika because she intuitively guesses the truth of her misguided attempts to support Mattias’ family. Because she has given all of her life savings to them, she decides it would be better to embezzle from a charitable fund at her hospital, than risk exposing herself as the benefactor of Matthias’ family, even though exactly one other person knows that Monika changed places with him that night.
Both of these women become increasingly unhinged and psychotic in their actions and I really got to the point where I wanted to throw the book against the wall. In the end, Monika ends up in prison with Maj-Britt’s old friend and neither character has received any help or support or is given any mental health treatment at all.
Unfortunately, neither Maj-Britt nor Monika is truly redeemed or saved in the end and I personally felt there were so many opportunities for the author to shift the downward spiral. Frankly, it felt as if Alvtegen herself believed neither character deserved any sympathy or outreach. Alvtegen seems to write stories of women in crisis with childhood experiences that push them to make radical life decisions primarily from a lack of parental love and support, which creates a faulty understanding of social and moral behaviors. Personally, I don’t have any room in my life for stories about these types of women. Novels don’t have to be all sunshine and rainbows, but honestly, this whole story was cruel; not just to the characters, but to readers as well.
Painting: Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (Sue Tilley), 1993.