A celebrated bestseller in Sweden, and the winner of the prestigious Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize, The White City is an arresting story of betrayal and empowerment as a criminal’s girlfriend is left behind to pick up the pieces of her imploded existence.
Karin knew what she was getting herself into when she fell for John, a high-flying wheeler-dealer. But she never imagined things would turn out like this: John is gone and the coke-filled parties, seemingly endless flow of money, and high social status have been replaced by cut telephone lines, cut heat, and cut cash. All that remains of Karin’s former life is the mansion he bought for her—and his daughter, the child Karin once swore she would never bring into their dangerous world.
Now she is on her own with baby Dream. As the authorities zero in on organized crime, John’s shady legacy is catching up with her. Over the course of a few days, Karin is forced to take drastic measures to claim what she considers rightfully hers . . .
“The ghostly Scandinavian setting and [protagonist] Karin’s closely narrated sense of impending doom . . . make Swedish star Ramqvist’s English-language debut an atmospheric and suspenseful read.” —Booklist
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It was the end of winter. Under the sky that had always been there, now dark, the house still looked almost new. It had a sort of shine to it and was surrounded by nothing but silence and snow. Snow framed the large frosted windows and rose from the shadows, piling in high drifts against the walls of the house. Not a shovel had been lifted.
The wind-whipped snow had formed a small drift on the front steps. A frozen wave revealing that no one had come or gone for several days.
The door was bolted shut and secured with several locks from within, and just inside stood a torn paper bag overflowing with white and brown envelopes. Bills and unopened letters. The cold floor was mottled with meltwater and mud splatter, as was the bag.
The hall was dark, as if it weren't morning at all. A dirty mirror hung askew. Karin, barefoot and naked, stood before it, while propping open the door to the bathroom so its light would fall across her body. Her skin was goose-pimpled from the cold, pale and bluish. Her stomach sagged and her breasts were heavy and unshapely. The left one had swelled during the night, and the skin was stretched so thin a web of veins showed through.
She pulled the skin on her belly until it was smooth and leaned forward to study the stretch marks rising in glossy relief from groin to navel. During her last flight to New York, she'd been woken by the pilot's voice on the speakers, suggesting they take in the view over Iceland. She'd sat up and gazed down at the island, which was almost entirely covered by glaciers, and had noticed streaks in the ice. Black rivers spreading out like a giant's mane, thousands of strands running across the frozen ground.
The traces pregnancy had left on her stomach looked just like that. Seeing these marks now, she felt as far away from them as she'd felt from the ice, flying thirty thousand feet above it.
During her pregnancy, she'd convinced herself that if she worried enough about getting stretch marks, she wouldn't get any.
Now she knew that wasn't how it worked.
Fear can't be used like an incantation; it's an unease that wells up when you know what's at stake. It's not true that what you worry about the most isn't going to happen. Rather, it's highly likely that it will.
Outside on the lake, plates of ice moved toward each other, in anticipation of freezing into a solid mass. The gray water churned around them in rippling waves. The dark forest rose above the white speckled cliffs on the far shore and the faint outline of a dock could be made out at the bottom of the property, where reeds and brittle blades of grass jutted from mounds of rumpled snow.
The weather had been changeable over the past days, or had it been weeks now? It had grown milder and had even begun to thaw. From her spot on the barstool at the kitchen island — his spot — she'd watched the lake open up like a gray, gaping mouth. Then the chill returned, a kind of paralysis, but the wind blew with such force that the lake couldn't freeze over.
In the bathroom, the fan was switched off, and as soon as she turned the water on, the mirrors fogged, turning the same whitish hue as the ice. Her back was cloaked in steam when she stepped out of the shower, the water still running, and hurried into the hall to check on the baby. She loathed the feeling of the cold, grimy floor against her bare feet. At this time of day, the house was at its most biting.
Dream sat on the living room floor in her diaper, facing away from her, playing with a white iPhone charger. She never seemed to tire of the whipping sound made by the thin metal tip hitting the parquet floor, or of the realization that she was in control: her hand was making a fist and she was moving the cable.
She stopped to watch the child amusing herself, unaware of the forces that shaped their existence. Their existence, which seemed so hushed, so spent. She hadn't yet been able to grasp that this moment in time was also the start of another person's life.
She took in the chubby body and its irregular, jerky movements. Dream was still something of a mystery to her. Those large, close-set eyes were unfamiliar in a way that made her ill at ease. A lock of hair jutted from the crown of the baby's head. In the middle of each of her puffy cheeks was a chapped, ruddy patch, which she assumed was from the cold, dry air. Through the baby's soft flesh, a perfect spine could be glimpsed.
She knew the child would one day become the most precious thing she had, but until then, it was pure luck that Dream was so calm. Perhaps you didn't get the child you deserved; you got the one you could handle.
She finished her shower with the bathroom door open onto the hall so she could keep an eye on Dream. When she was done, she peered out and saw the little one still sitting there in the living room with her cable. She dried off and slipped into his robe, the only one left after she sold all of her kimonos.
It weighed down her shoulders; it was far too big.
His body had always been red and hot when he'd put it on.
She knotted the belt around her waist, pulled it tight, and leaned against the sink, drinking in the scent of him, which lingered deep in the thick terry cloth. Toothpaste and deodorant and wet, warm male skin.
The promise that everything was going to be okay.
She wished the damp heat wouldn't dissipate so quickly, but it did. And when she stepped out of the bathroom, it was even colder than she'd expected. She'd shut off the underfloor heating throughout the house, so now whenever the slightest wind blew, an icy draft would find its way in.
She should go into the garage, find the duct tape he kept there, and seal the vents by the windows in the big room — oversize panes of tinted bulletproof glass so large they couldn't really be called windows.
But she never got around to it.
Though she was tall, the bathrobe practically dragged on the floor. Her slippers were upstairs. Something was stuck to the sole of her foot and when she wiped it on the terry cloth, it sounded like a small stone falling to the parquet.
Dream was ice-cold. On the sofa lay a onesie that was as good as clean, and as she dressed her in it she tried to rub the warmth back into her legs and feet. She carried the baby through the large open room, into the kitchen, and switched on the kettle. The sink had an odor, an intermittent whiff of rot she'd come to know well.
She put Dream down on the floor next to the barstool, closed her eyes. While the kettle boiled, she focused on her breath, visualizing the movement of water and air and paying attention to the flow of air through her nostrils, first left, then right.
The doorbell chimed.
It chimed again. A synthetic triadic chord.
She hadn't expected the buyer to arrive so soon, but then it hit her: that's just how this goes. They called and said they'd seen the ad and wanted to come take a look right away.
She knew the feeling. She remembered what it was like to covet something.
She picked up Dream and hurried upstairs, took the bag out of the closet, and ran back down to open the door, sweeping aside the bank of snow on the stoop.
Outside, it was gray and windy.
The wind wailed and the cold rushed in, settling in her wet hair, grabbing hold.
On the steps was a woman her age. Baseball cap, fur coat, black rubber riding boots. They greeted each other and shook hands and she made an effort to smile. She shut the door and made the woman stand just inside.
Held up the bag.
"You wanted to see this one, right?"
The woman nodded and said she was going on vacation and this model was so practical for travel, smiled when Dream waved in her direction, and asked if she was on maternity leave.
She managed another smile and held out the bag. Even the lining was in good condition; the subtle pattern brought to mind the patios of expensive restaurants and white sand.
"So, are you selling any others?"
"Yeah, I've got a few. One lovely 2.55 ... Chanel."
The woman nodded. She scrutinized the bag, complimenting her on how well it had been cared for.
"You know what," she said. "I'll have to get back to you on this."
She lowered her outstretched hand.
"Is it the price?"
"No, that's fine." The woman looked at the bag again. "It's just that I would like a certificate of authenticity validated by the store. It's not that I don't trust you, but if I ever decide to sell it myself, well, you understand. If you can get me one, I'll take it."
The winter air nipped at her as she stood in the doorway, bag in hand, watching as the woman got into her car and set the windshield wipers in motion. A relentless gust pummeled the house and she had to tug with all her might to shut the front door, but the drifting snow still reached her.
She rubbed her feet against her calves; snow and melt dripped down them.
She couldn't bring herself to take the bag upstairs. When she had bolted the door, she hung the bag on a hook in the hall, swore out loud, and went into the kitchen to turn the kettle back on, trying to feel grateful that at least the electricity was still flowing through the wires.
She took out the tea canister and measured out as little as possible. Then she put Dream down on the floor by the sofas, walked to the kettle, and poured the boiling water over the tea leaves, plagued by the thought that she would accidentally spill the hot water on Dream and scald her.
The brochures she'd been given at the pediatrician's office said that most serious accidents with children happen in the home. Boiling water, falls, crush injuries. She could picture it: She'd run into the bathroom with Dream and shower her with cold water. Or would she call an ambulance first? How difficult it would be to do both things at once.
Holding her mug, she sat on the barstool at the kitchen island. His spot. Where he always, always used to sit and read the newspaper when he was home. The footrest was freezing. She blew on the tea and warmed her fingers around the mug. This had also been his: a chipped photo mug, stained by all the coffee and tea that had been drunk from it.
First him, now her.
That picture of Nicholas on the outside. His smile and a date and the letters "RIP."
She turned on the exhaust fan, lit a cigarette, and felt the poison spread through her body.
She didn't get the paper anymore. When the bill arrived, she'd canceled her subscription — had she known what it cost, she would have done it sooner — and now she missed it.
In front of her lay a mommy magazine her friend Anna, Peter's girlfriend, had brought over when Dream was a newborn and Peter was working with John. The magazine was open to an article about a cookbook author and her children. Every time she read it, the pictures of them laughing and eating steel-cut oatmeal in a large kitchen settled inside her like cotton. She felt herself being filled, as if she were the one eating the oatmeal, as if she too were a woman like that, a woman without a care in the world.
She took careful sips of her tea. It hardly tasted of anything, but all she really wanted was the heat.
She lit another cigarette and looked out at the view.
The sky was gray, as was the water.
It had stopped snowing.
When she admired the nature on the other side of the glass, all the feelings it aroused in her made her feel ridiculous. It wasn't that she wanted to be in it.
She wanted to be it.
She envied it.
She wanted to lie on the icy rocks in front of the terrace and stay there until the stones took pity and absorbed her. She wanted to be one with the great, heavy calm that seemed to exist out there. To be one of the bits of gravel in the clefts of the cliff under the snow, or a needle trembling on its sprig when the pines swayed in the wind. The moisture in the air, a snowflake created by the cold and that disappeared along with it. The down on the swans bobbing together on the water through the ice sheets and waves, indifferent to the wind ruffling their feathers and to the chill that had them and everything around them in its clutches.
She wanted the same conditions of existence. She wanted to be as languid and fearless in the face of her own annihilation.
On the slope leading to the water, the snow was thick and undisturbed but for the tracks of small birds. The shrub maples close to the house were still blanketed in white. In front of the terrace doors, the snow was melting. Frozen leaves and pine needles that had fallen the year before could be seen through the shallow drifts. She should have cleared all of it away long before the weather turned; and she would have, had she been able to.
Where the deck was bare, the wooden planks were dappled with white droppings from jackdaws that had flown over the house in the fall. At the foot of the large alder lay black twigs and pinecones, and spotlights peeked out from the white like field mice. They no longer lit up the tree at night.
She used to think the spotlights were cameras trained on her, surveilling her every move at home. Of course, now she knew she'd been paranoid, but back then, when the house was at the center of the action, the thought had seemed completely normal.
Now the house was like any other, more or less, and she didn't take care of it as she used to. No one took care of it. The surfaces — that polished luster she'd once adored — were caked in dust and dirt. Grease spots were simply abandoned. A pattern of coffee cup rings was spreading across the kitchen island. Dust had collected on the floor, and the large windows were covered in smears that looked like a chalk drawing. Layer upon layer of sticky handprints coated the glass at the bottom.
It had been over six months now.
The growing child was a constant reminder.
The passage of time reminded her of everything she'd wanted, her dreams of their life together.
She should have taken her things and the kid and moved away long ago, but she hadn't been able to bring herself to leave. The house was a part of him and as long as she was within its walls it was as if nothing had happened. Here she could still feel his presence. Sometimes she caught his lanky, broad-shouldered figure out of the corner of her eye as she moved through the rooms.
But each time she left the house, it was all too clear. There was nothing out there. Whenever she approached the front door it was as though she were in a deep valley, making her way through a ravine, impossible to scale, without any idea of what lay ahead.
Therese had moved in right after it had happened. She'd stayed with her and Dream until Alex decided it was enough already and picked her up. He threw her things into his large car, dragged her out of the house, and made her go home. But she had still come back. Either she or Anna had, one or both of them.
They would visit almost every day.
They cleaned and took care of things, they brought food she couldn't eat and films she couldn't bear to watch and went for walks with the stroller so she could get some sleep.
And then it came to an end.
They didn't call her and she didn't call them either. At the time, it had mostly felt like a relief.
They drifted apart and the idea that they were supposed to be a family — an even more tolerant family than the one she was born into — dissolved more quickly than she had expected. It happened so fast she hadn't had time to process it. Anna and Therese said that she had abandoned them. But they'd probably never cared about her in the first place and had been friends with her only because of John. Because he'd had the last say about everything and everyone in their little world, and because being near him felt like basking in the sun.
Everyone wanted to get close to him.
When he disappeared, she'd thought their circle had been broken, but now she knew better. She was the only one who had ended up on the outside, alone. The others carried on as usual, just without them. They were two stones that had fallen out of a wall and the wall had sealed itself up again.
The humiliation of having been abandoned by the group and the sorrow that had arrived in John's absence drove her deeper into isolation. With the newborn permanently attached to her body, she was ushered into a world of crying and night waking and clear, runny discharge seeping out of her, forcing her to wear thick pads.
She looked at the low ceiling of snow clouds gathering over the lake and cliffs and the black forest on the other side. She looked for tears in the cloud cover, for rays of light shining through, precipitation, anything. As if the sky beyond the clouds was supposed to come to grips with her situation and signal that it was time.
Time to come out of hibernation.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The White City"
Copyright © 2015 Karolina Ramqvist.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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