The Son is a skilful Scandinavian interpretation of that favourite crime-thriller staple: the revenge story. It covers the usual ground: an unjustly convicted / victimised protagonist who experiences a moment of revelation; turns the table on his tormentors, wreaks rather gory and well-deserved retaliation upon all those associated with his downfall – but in an entirely moral way, you understand; sparing the innocent, leaving room for redemption, and so on.
But in Jo Nesbo’s typically engaging way, The Son incorporates rather more subtle plot twists than Death Wish, and the central character is infinitely more ambivalent and complicated than the one played by Charles Bronson. Over the course of the novel, Sonny makes the transition from being an isolated young man with absolutely nothing to lose, peculiarly disassociated from society and almost invulnerable to its evils, to a much more engaged – and hence exposed – character.
Initially, Sonny-the-druggie offers absolution to small-time offenders because he is detached beyond caring: it’s an empty form of exoneration. During the course of the novel he becomes able to understand the nature of real forgiveness, in no small part because of the personal attachments he forms after committing a prison break and multiple murders. The crux of the matter is whether he can genuinely forgive the people responsible for his predicament…
This is a stand-alone story, not part of Nesbo’s Harry Hole series. Like ‘Headhunters’ before it, The Son simply rattles along – it’ll undoubtedly be filmed fairly soon, as some of the scenes (especially the prison break set-piece) could have been written for the camera. There are cliff-hangers galore, and some sequences of such extreme tension that you’ll be blitzing through the pages.
It bogs down a little with the back-story however, which explains how Sonny came to be in prison, who killed his policeman father, and unveils a criminal conspiracy which has its claws firmly embedded in the justice system. All of that plot is necessary to motivate Sonny and give him a credibly murderous opponent, because you get the impression that the police in this novel couldn’t catch a cold with both hands. Even so, I could’ve just taken the gangster scenes as read and moved on a bit quicker. It felt to me as if the criminal mastermind, ‘The Twin’, was a good character who deserved a book in his own right but had somehow been crammed into this one. Just felt like one over-egged plotline which, if it had been detuned a trifle, would have speeded up the pace of the whole book.
There were many more moments of greater satisfaction in this novel: Sonny’s increasingly futile fight against his addiction; the entertaining interactions between the (inevitably mismatched) pair of detectives trying to find him without harming him; the acute social observations which litter Nesbo’s writing. He perfectly sums up the awkwardness of a couple who announce their engagement, even though one of them has massive misgivings, and the excruciating reality of such public domestic disasters.
And the subplot involving the detective’s wife, who is going slowly blind, is beautifully rendered. The detective attempts not to notice her increasing disability, but tactfully helps when he can… until the anxiety of being unable to afford the operation she needs to save her sight comes boiling out and lands in his lap (literally). And of course, his desperate financial straits and her medical condition make him impossibly vulnerable to pressure from the bad guys.
So if you’re expecting a solid summer crime caper, then that’s exactly what Nesbo (and his translator, of course) deliver. The language is plain rather than literary; it leans more towards dense description than stripped-bare, savage penmanship. There’s not so much of the bleak Norwegian world about this novel: it feels pretty international, in fact. It’s set in Oslo but it could almost be any major urban centre. Maybe that’s a sign of Nordic noir’s total acceptance by the mainstream…
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Son by Jo Nesbo is available in various formats at Amazon