Reviewed by James Walker in SBR 2017:1
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
Luften är fri is Sara Lövestam’s eighth book and her third about Kouplan.The first, Sanning med modifikation (Truth With Modification) was published in 2015, followed by Önskar kostar ingenting (Desire Costs Nothing) in the same year. The books can be read separately, however; this one is subtitled Tredje fristående boken om Kouplan (The Third Stand-Alone Book About Kouplan).
The book’s genre was initially unclear. Was this general fiction or crime fiction? The matter seems to have been decided when Sanning med modifikation was awarded the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy’s prize for the best debut crime novel in Swedish.
Kouplan, an Iranian refugee, is homeless and has no legal right to remain in Sweden. This means he has to stay beneath the authorities’ radar until the date when he is allowed to formally seek asylum again. He has been in Sweden for several years by now and so speaks good Swedish. He is also undergoing a sex change from woman to man and is using hormone injections obtained on the black market, for which he still owes money. Perhaps surprisingly given all this, Kouplan is a private detective and has taken on a new case.
The client, Ulrika, is a resident of the middle-class Stockholm suburb of Bromma. Ulrika’s husband Håkan, a respectable city lawyer, has been acting suspiciously and she suspects him of having an extra-marital affair.
Kouplan takes on the case against all the odds, as he is by now homeless and sleeping rough under Gullmarsplan tube station. Moreover, he has little in the way of a conventional private detective’s resources. Instead he has to rely solely on his intelligence and wit.
The narrative is cleverly interwoven. Kouplan’s underground existence and the junkies he coexists with and their social situation contrast with the life of the Bromma middle-class family and its need for respectability at all costs, coupled with blatant materialism. The investigation, which at first seems to be a simple matter of infidelity, proves to be far from straightforward, and as matters progress it becomes darker and more dangerous.
The tight balance between the riddles of the plot and their hard- found solutions is very skilful, and the few resources available to Kouplan are cleverly used. His kit is a mobile phone charged clandestinely at a library, or even in a disabled toilet, while Kouplan takes the opportunity to wash himself and his clothes. As a detective he is methodical, writing down every detail in his notebook. His key tool is the Internet, which he uses with flair and finesse to ultimately bring the complex case to its conclusion.
As well as writing, Sara Lövestam teaches Swedish to immigrants. She is used to people who are learning the Swedish language and so she allows Kouplan to make errors and also to try and defend them grammatically. Kouplan’s junkie friend, Mormor (Grandma), has participated in the Swedish national ‘pun championships’ and we are treated to some very funny puns.The language of the book is clever, fine, subtle, humorous and immensely enjoyable.
Lövestam plans a fourth novel about Kouplan and I very much look forward to reading it.