Lapland, in the far north of Sweden, is a strange and mysterious place, and this epic novel by Swedish author Stefan Spjut reflects every bit of its otherworldly mystery. It’s not a quick read; it’s the kind of book you want to live with for a while. Characters and situations are introduced without any explanation of their relationships to each other or their surroundings, but patient readers will be rewarded: Much of the book’s pleasure comes from the slow and shocking revelations of the story’s architecture as it progresses.
Shapeshifters begins in 1978, when a 4-year-old boy is abducted while he and his mother are vacationing at a cabin in northern Sweden. The mother swears a giant stole her son; no one believes her, and the mystery is never solved.
Twenty-five years later, a woman named Susso who runs a blog about mysterious creature sightings—Bigfoot, aliens and of course, because this is Sweden, trolls—gets a call from an old lady who has seen a strange person standing outside her house. Susso checks it out, and manages to get a photo of the creature, who looks vaguely but not exactly like a tiny old man. Soon after, the old lady’s grandson vanishes, and Susso finds herself at the heart of a missing-child investigation that lines up oddly with her search for the strange little man.
Elsewhere, an act of violence shatters a cult-like family of outsiders who maintain a guest house inhabited by unspecified but dangerous beings. Nothing about their situation is explained directly; we see them through the eyes of Seved, a young man whose relationship to the other adults is somewhere between servant and heir.
There’s much more: clever animals that aren’t what they seem, ineffective cops, territorial snowmobilers and the real story behind the shipwreck that killed famous Swedish artist John Bauer. As Susso’s and Seved’s paths converge, we gradually come to understand more and more about where they are and how they got there. The more we understand, the more disturbing it gets. At the risk of revealing too much, trolls aren’t the scariest thing in the book.
Though he preserves certain mysteries as long as he can, Spjut relates two aspects of the story with perfect clarity. One is the physical world: The natural landscape is vivid and specific, and crucial to the story, as befits any tale set in Lapland. The other is the day-to-day texture of life: how people talk, the importance of coffee, what the hotel restaurant tablecloth looks like. These details build a completely realistic world around equally realistic characters, which makes the strangeness at the story’s core all the more effective.