A flat lay of five Vintage books by Scandinavian authors, against blue and grey textiles.

Scandinavian fiction covers a huge range. If you want to get your adrenaline pumping, you can’t do better than to pluck a ‘Nordic noir’ thriller off the shelf; but the writers of Northern Europe seem equally well-suited to quiet reflections on human nature.

Some of the books below are funny, some sad and some terrifying, but they all share an insistence on looking unflinchingly at life as it really is, and telling the truth about human relationships and feelings.

Knock Knock by Anders Roslund (2021, translated by Elizabeth Clark Wessel 2021)

Superintendent Ewert Grens – a Swedish detective so melancholy he makes Kurt Wallander look like a ray of sunshine – is nearing retirement when one of his most harrowing unsolved cases erupts back into his life. 

Seventeen years earlier he entered a house to find an entire family slaughtered, apart from a little girl called Zana. Now he’s investigating a burglary at the same house – and the fact that his old notes have been stolen from the police archive suggest that somebody has unfinished business, possibly with Zana. 

Anders Roslund wrote this entry in the long-running series of Ewart Grens thrillers alone, after the premature death of his writing partner Börge Hellström in 2017. Happily, it’s as darkly gripping as its predecessors. 

The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard (2020, translated by Martin Aitken 2021)

Internationally famous for his autobiographical series ‘My Struggle ’, the Norwegian author turns his focus away from himself here, to enter the heads of a large gallery of different characters who find themselves in very bizarre circumstances. 

A huge new star appears in the sky, heralding a series of unlikely events: animals start to behave unnaturally, dead people seemingly come back to life. Against this backdrop of a changing world, nine different narrators try to carry on living their normal lives.

Is this an allegory about climate change, a ghost story or a work of science fiction? It’s difficult to categorise but always riveting, not least because of Knausgaard’s supreme ability to convey the often overlooked minutiae of life and the texture of human consciousness.

The Whisperer by Karin Fossum (2016, translated by Kari Dickson 2018)

This chiller by the writer known as the ‘Norwegian queen of crime’ focuses on one of life’s failures: Ragna Riegel, a lonely convenience store worker who hasn’t seen her only son for a decade, and whose natural shyness is exacerbated by botched throat surgery that means she can only talk in a whisper. 

So why on Earth is somebody sending this most unassuming of people death threats? It gradually becomes apparent that there’s more to Ragna than meets the eye as she unfolds her story to Fossum’s regular sleuth, Inspector Sejer. 

Unconventionally structured and focusing on the sort of character who is rarely granted centre stage in a novel, this is both a thriller and a brilliant character study. 

The Bat by Jo Nesbo (1997, translated by Don Bartlett 2012)

When Jo Nesbo went on a sabbatical to Australia to write a memoir about his career as one of Norway’s most successful rock stars, he played literary truant and instead wrote a crime novel featuring a policeman called Harry Hole.

The book sees Harry arriving in Sydney to assist the investigation into the murder of a Norwegian expat, and establishes his distinctive MO: wreaking drunken havoc wherever he goes while doggedly pursuing the truth. 

A gripping mystery, The Bat is also part of literary history: the birth of a character – tough but vulnerable, chaotic but indestructible – who, twelve novels on, is loved by millions of readers worldwide. 

Only Human by Kristine Naess (2014, translated by Seán Kinsella  2017)

One of Norway’s most acclaimed writers intertwines the stories of three women who have been emotionally scarred by the behaviour of the men in their lives and find it difficult to form meaningful relationships. 

They are Bea Britt, a novelist who becomes preoccupied with the disappearance of a local 12-year-old girl; her friend’s daughter Beate, a student; and – in a parallel narrative set in the 1930s – Bea’s grandmother Cecilie, who leads such a constrained life that ‘on the inside she is a solitary scream’.

Eventually all three lives reach crisis point in this haunting study of the ripple effect of abuse and cruelty.

The Family Clause by Jonas Hassen Khemiri (2018, translated by Alice Menzies 2020)

A multi-award-winning Swedish author offers an original exploration of a dysfunctional family in this blackly comic tale. It begins with a Swedish man and his sister awaiting the arrival of their father – a demanding bigot who makes Scrooge look generous – who lives abroad but has to make periodic visits to Stockholm for tax reasons. 

The visit follows the usual pattern, with the son being denounced by his father as a failure – but can he pluck up the courage to stand up to him? 

With its unnamed characters – one of whom is a ghost – this offbeat but immersive novel proves Tolstoy’s dictum that unhappy families are unhappy in their own unique way, but also manages to offer some universal truths about the way families work. 

Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad (1994, translated by Sverre Lyngstad 2006)

This modern Norwegian classic – a homage to an older one, Ibsen’s The Wild Duck – begins with middle-aged teacher Elias Rukla vainly trying to interest his students in his insights into Ibsen, and is provoked by their indifference into a humiliating public meltdown that signals ‘goodbye to his entire social existence’. 

As Elias wanders around Oslo trying to come to terms with his actions, he reflects on the degeneration of Norwegian culture and the opportunities he has missed in life through pursuing high ideals. 

A short, sharp shock of a novel that doubles as a searing portrait of a society and of a man at odds with it. 

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (2011, translated by Martin Aitken 2014)

Helle Helle has become both a critical and commercial success in Denmark with her extraordinary ability to take the thoughts and sensations of ordinary people drifting aimlessly through life, and make them enthralling.

In this book the narrator is a young woman called Dorte, who has given up attending her classes at the University of Copenhagen and fails to do anything much except sleep with unsuitable men and observe the world around her, in tersely evocative prose. 

Attentive readers may spot clues to another story Dorte is not openly telling us, but the book lingers most in the mind as a fascinating exercise in making the unmemorable memorable. 

Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell (1991, translated by Steven T. Murray 2000)

This was the novel that introduced the troubled Swedish cop Kurt Wallander, a walking disaster area who also happens to be a brilliant detective. 

In his debut Wallander investigates a murderous attack on an elderly couple in an isolated farmhouse. The wife utters the word ‘Foreigners’ with her dying breath, leading to a xenophobic media frenzy and allowing Mankell to explore what will become the series’ central theme, the increasing illiberalism of Sweden.

Kenneth Branagh and others may have brought Wallender to life on screen, but he’s at his world-weary best on the page, making existential gloom thoroughly invigorating. 

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (2003, Translated by Anne Born 2005)

A winner of the International Dublin Literary Award and recently made into a superb film starring Stellan Skarsgård, this novel is narrated by Trond, a 67-year-old Norwegian widower who lives an uncompromisingly spartan life _ ‘I hate being entertained, I don't have any time for it’ – in a remote house in the countryside.

What he does have time for is reflecting on his past, something that becomes more urgent when he unexpectedly encounters a figure connected with his childhood. 

He recalls in detail a memorable summer in 1948 – when Norway was still reeling from the German occupation and a series of mishaps and tragedies set him on the transition from boyhood to manhood – in a book that is both delicate and powerful. 

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