VMAG reviews I'm Travelling Alone by Samuel Bjork

3 min read
15 Aug 2017
3 min read
850 words
From the Archive (Feb, 2016): Samuel Bjork mines Mia’s fatal flaw to power his best selling novel I'm Travelling Alone
Samuel Bjork mines Mia’s fatal flaw to power his best selling novel I’m Travelling Alone

Mia wants to kill herself because the death of her twin sister, Sigrid, from heroin-overdose has left a huge void in her life. The guilt has its provenance in her belief that she couldn’t prevent her sister from sliding into the pits of addiction hell. To make matters worse, she had also allowed her anger take over her, as a result of which, she had recklessly killed Sigrid’s crackhead boyfriend. That killing has only further plunged her into a morass of guilt-tinged misery.

When the novel starts, Mia’s only aim in life is to chase oblivion, by drinking, and swallowing diazepam and other downers. However, as the planned date of the suicide nears, a little girl’s body is found hanging from a tree, and the Oslo Police Force have a new case to crack. Their only clue: an airline tag around the victim’s neck that reads: “I’m Travelling Alone.”

As Mia reluctantly agrees to work the case, she discovers yet another clue: the Roman numeral ‘I’ scratched on the nail of the victim. This is where the plot begins to reel you in because you know that there will be other victims.

The plot is driven almost wholly by the characters and their development. The Greeks used to say character determines destiny, and in I’m Travelling Alone, it is the defining aspect of the protagonist’s character—her tragic flaw—that guides her actions, which in turn drives the plot, the destiny of the novel. Mia cares, and her ability to empathise is both a gift and a curse: she can think like a criminal, but doing so also drains her energy, and she often ends up fatigued, owing to which the investigation hits a wall time and again. But although her demons find newer ways to bog her down, Mia still has to find it in herself to carry on because she perhaps sees the victims as stand-ins for her dead sister.

Luckily for Mia, she does have a partner to shoulder some of the intolerable burden foisted upon her by her curse. Holger, an” amiable nerd”, is the friend that Mia can lean on in times of difficulty. Holger, too, despite trying to appear strong, has his own demons to battle. Unlike with thinly fleshed-out crime novels, the sidekick’s story in this story is also central to the plot, and that dovetailing of character-growth with plot-development distinguishes Samuel Bjork’s writing from the works of most other crime novelists. Furthermore, by rounding off the cast with complex characters, he adds layers and depth to the narrative, with the plot growing organically around their growth.

Peopling his novel with such disparate characters also allows Bjork to throw into sharp relief the bleakness of human existence—to examine those aspects of ourselves we refuse to acknowledge. He touches upon the darker side of the human psyche by delving into issues such as depression, suicide, schizophrenia and the urge to kill—all central themes of the novel.

Bjork shows that no matter the flaw one is saddled with, how someone deals with how they are hardwired is up to them. Not everyone chooses to rise above it all. But Mia, despite her tragic flaw, chooses a heroic path, while the killer cannot break the shackles of the darker urges.

The diction in the English version of the book, rendered by Charlotte Barslund, is more matter of fact than poetic, and that works to the story’s advantage. Despite so many narrative strands about the characters crisscrossing, the simplicity in the writing helps readers keep track of the underlying plot without their getting lost in the details, a must for a crime novel.

For the denouement, the author could have taken the easy way out by allowing Mia to finally break free of her flaw. But what he ends with makes sense on at least two counts. Because the burden of Mia’s guilt is such a heavy one, she cannot obviously find healing through her work, noble as it is. And because Mia does not achieve catharsis, Bjork will be able to employ the tortured detective to work crime cases in the future, should he need her service. That’s a nice formula for generating a riveting series.