Book review: “The Drowned Boy”
Christine Foster Meloni
The case seems cut and dried. A 16-month old boy wanders away from his home and falls into a nearby pond where he drowns. His parents and grandparents are visibly distraught.
But suspicions about the boy’s mother, 19-year-old Carmen Zita, quickly surface. Inspector Skarre is the first one to question her at the scene, and her odd behavior immediately sets off alarm bells in his head.
After interviewing her, Chief Inspector Sejer feels certain that Carmen is lying and that Tommy’s death was not accidental. When he learns that Tommy had Down Syndrome, he becomes even more suspicious.
Proving Carmen’s guilt, however, will be difficult. Sejer is well aware that murders of children are often classified as accidents for lack of solid evidence. But children are the most vulnerable members of society, and he feels very strongly that they have a right to justice.
In her crime novels, Fossum focuses less on what her characters do and more on what they think and feel. She is particularly interested in understanding why people commit crimes. This novel may strike some readers as being unusually slow, as very little actually happens. But a great deal is going on in the minds of the three principal characters: Sejer, Carmen, and her husband Nicolai.
We see Sejer trying to find a way to trip Carmen up. He thinks she was ashamed of Tommy because he had Down Syndrome. She seems too eager to put Tommy behind her and move ahead. He reminds himself, however, that people grieve in different ways. Maybe her behavior is really not so peculiar. At times he doubts his intuition because he is worried that his health might be affecting his judgment. He has been suffering from severe bouts of dizziness and fears he might have a brain tumor. He postpones consulting a doctor because he doesn’t want to hear this fatal diagnosis.
Carmen clearly wants to get on with her life. She is certain she will be proven innocent. She urges her husband to stop brooding. They should have another child right away and then life will return to normal.
Nicolai’s grief is palpable. He seems to have loved Tommy unconditionally. He has taken Tommy’s death very hard and is not willing to think about anything else. Carmen’s attitude disturbs him and he too begins to suspect that she is lying.
Fossum pulls the reader into the minds of these three individuals. Sejer asks himself why he is so certain she is guilty. He may be wrong. Carmen is clearly agitated, but is it because she feels real anguish for the loss of her son or because she suddenly fears she may be found guilty?
Even if Carmen is found guilty, she would most likely get off lightly. Sejer knows from experience that when a mother murders a child, many mitigating circumstances are taken into consideration (e.g. personality disorders, psychosis, and depression) because of the special bond between a mother and her child.
Is Tommy’s Down Syndrome a mitigating circumstance? In Norway, as in many other countries, it is legal for a woman to have an abortion if she discovers that she is carrying a child with this syndrome. Carmen would have opted for an abortion if she had known. Was the strain of taking care of Tommy too much for her and should she be exonerated if she is proven guilty?
This novel is another intriguing psychological thriller by Karin Fossum in which she focuses on a moral question. Is a child with Down Syndrome a burden or a blessing?
In her previous novels Fossum has shown sympathy both for the perpetrators of crimes, often disadvantaged members of society, and the victims. In this novel, where does her sympathy lie? With Carmen? With Nicolai? Or perhaps with Tommy?
Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, DC. She values her Norwegian heritage.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 16, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.