FICTION: SCANDINAVIAN DYSTOPIA

January 28, 2018

Email

There are secrets in the locked rooms, but what other secrets are the people inside hiding?
There are secrets in the locked rooms, but what other secrets are the people inside hiding?

A television host, a former military man, a marathon-running HR executive and a businessperson are among the seven people brought to a remote island to compete in a 48-hour test for a top secret intelligence position. Anna, a gifted yet overworked bureaucrat, is recruited as the government’s stooge for this secretive programme and given a covert assignment, but is she the only one on the island with secrets?

The Dying Game, the debut novel by Swedish broadcast journalist Asa Avdic, was a huge hit in Sweden and is billed as a novel for fans of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The story is set in the year 2037. The world has seen another Cold War and the larger part of Europe, including Sweden, has been consolidated under the totalitarian Union of Friendship. Absolute loyalty to the autocratic government is paramount and defectors are ridiculed and shamed.

Anna, a bureaucrat with an estranged daughter, has recently come back from a mentally exhausting mission in the remote refugee camps of Kyzylkum in Uzbekistan. This assignment ended disastrously, tarnishing Anna’s humanitarian status and sending her down a path of ignominy. Since then Anna has been relegated to menial tasks, so when she is summoned by the all-powerful Chairman for a classified project, she seizes with both hands the opportunity to redeem herself.

An inventive near-future locked-room mystery that falls slightly short of its fascinating potential

She is given the following instructions: Go to the island of Isola for a 48-hour psychological test with six other people, be a quasi-spy and, after faking her own death, covertly observe the reactions and mental resilience of other participants from secret passageways inside the walls of the house. An on-site medical doctor, Katerina, will administer the death-faking drug to Anna and be her partner in crime.

Anna is only told that this is part of the recruitment selection process, but is not told the logic or purpose of such an absurd procedure. As for the location, there is only one way to reach the island of Isola, and there are only two structures on it: a boathouse and a main house. This main house has two stories and a basement that contains a medical station. It looks ordinary from the outside, but small corridors have been built into the walls between every room, large enough for a person to stand in. This person — Anna — can look into the rooms from tiny holes in the walls. After she is presumed dead by the other recruits, she will spy on them and report her findings.

However, things don’t go according to plan and Anna realises that everyone on the island is working under false pretences. One of the recruits is Henry, Anna’s former flame which makes the selection process all the more suspect for her. Soon people start disappearing and someone turns up dead, for real this time. Anna comes to see that the reality is more twisted than what she signed up for and that she and the other housemates might all be mere pawns in a complex power play.

The Dying Game is the kind of book that seems to be written with a series in mind; details about the near future world in which the story is set are doled out in small, sketchy doses. The novel is being compared to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and I understand where the comparisons are coming from — both novels are mysteries in which a group of people is lured on to an isolated island under false pretexts and they start turning up dead — but the similarities end there.

This dystopian novel, set in a totalitarian regime, contemplates several moral questions regarding research ethics and politics. The story vividly imagines a world that has been through Cold War II in the early 2000s and is now facing the unavoidable ramifications of an authoritarian political system. There is a particularly chilling bit about Anna’s mother, a diligent Party worker who submits application after application to visit her ailing father in Bosnia, but is not allowed to travel because the Party is afraid she might defect. She then goes to extreme measures to get an exit permit and visit her father, but the only outcome of this rebellion is her being labelled a dissident. Anna wonders, “I had heard of this before, how people would go to extremes to render themselves useless to the Party in order to get an exit permit. But I thought those were only urban legends.” The story is at its strongest in painting a vivid portrayal of a society where unconditional subservience is required from its people, who are encouraged to be pragmatic and see the bigger picture rather than take initiative or act out of sympathy.

With such a promising premise and with so many facets to it, it is unfortunate that the story never becomes more than a sum of its parts. There are all the trappings of a well-rounded novel: a prescient dystopia, an intriguing locked-room mystery and an atmospheric thriller. However, the writing falters with characterisation and bland narration.

None of the characters come alive on the page and neither is the reader told about their motivations. Although seven people participate, we are told only that Anna is a guilt-riddled mother desperately trying to win her daughter and her reputation back and Henry is a government worker with a suspiciously calm demeanour and ulterior motives for agreeing to this assignment. There are several loose ends, and a vague peek into Anna’s PTSD which is never put in a specific context. I really wanted the chilling dystopian vision to be more palpable in its eeriness, but the writing did not do the inventive storyline justice. Part of the problem might be the fact that the book is translated, so maybe the tense, heady pace got lost in translation.

Avdic’s debut has a truly original premise which aims to blend the classic mystery with a modern, chilling dystopia. I rarely say this, but I wanted this book to be longer so that all the story arcs could be resolved in due time. As it stands, the narrative appears insipid and rushed and would have benefitted with a tighter plot line and less loopholes. Having said that, though, I’m still keen to read the next book in the series (if there is one) since the world of The Dying Game has a lot of untapped potential.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based freelance book critic

The Dying Game
By Asa Avdic
Translated by Rachel
Willson-Broyles
Windmill Books, UK
ISBN: 978-1786090201
288pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 28th, 2018