Swedish writer Ann-Helén Laestadius’s first fiction for adults opens in a wintry Scandinavian forest as a knife-wielding figure hacks away at a reindeer calf. What makes the scene so ominous is the narrator’s point of view, because watching it all, only partly hidden by the trunk of a pine tree, is a nine-year-old Sami girl named Elsa, to whom the calf belongs.
Laestadius, a journalist with an award-winning YA novel to her name, is herself of Sami and Tornedalian descent, and as she explains in an author note, she draws here on real-life events that have been taking place in the Sami territory of Sápmi for years. In preparation, she read more than 100 police reports about killed and tortured reindeer, none of which, she relates, has led to prosecution.
The slayings in Stolen are hate crimes, targeting the indigenous way of life, yet they’re barely investigated. Indeed, the book’s title flags an injustice that ensures little is done: since reindeer are legally regarded as domesticated animals, the crimes don’t even count as poaching, merely theft.
It’ll take more than 10 years before Elsa is brave enough to tell anyone, and the fear and guilt that comes with keeping the secret blights the rest of her girlhood
The killer takes far more than the life of Elsa’s reindeer. Realising he’s not alone, he vanishes into the January dusk, but not before pointing at Elsa, touching a finger to his lips and then drawing it across his throat. Though she recognises him, it’ll take more than 10 years before Elsa is brave enough to tell anyone, and the fear and guilt that comes with keeping the secret blights the rest of her girlhood. Meanwhile, the killings continue.
Despite the fury that inspired Stolen, much of its narrative is characterised by a quiet, pensive stillness, especially the first section, with its child’s-eye perspective and careful contextualisation. Sami traditions are lovingly detailed – from the bright gákti that Elsa and her people wear to the joiks they sing – and we learn plenty about tensions within the community as well as with their Swedish neighbours. Elsa’s mother, for instance, is still regarded as an outsider despite having Sami roots.
The bulk of the novel takes place a decade later. In the intervening years, the loss of a dear uncle and her brother’s estrangement have combined with frustration at police inaction to reshape Elsa’s family. A brooding final section infuses a thriller-like denouement with complex moral reasoning.
Stolen’s pacing can be erratic, its prose sometimes better suited to YA fiction than an ambitious fable of inequity and revenge. And despite an abundance of Sami words, Rachel Willson-Broyles’s English translation often seems jarringly American, leaving this remote Arctic setting on occasion feeling closer to Cincinnati than Stockholm. (Is Tylenol really readily available in Sweden?) Even so, it’s with laudable subtlety that Laestadius depicts the stresses and strains unique to a people trying to stay true to their ancient way of life while coping with prejudice, persecution and the unfolding impact of global heating.
Stolen by Ann-Helén Laestadius, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, is published by Bloomsbury Circus (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply