A young woman in Massachusetts was recently convicted of manslaughter after she urged her boyfriend, via cellphone, to carry out his suicide plans. The same deadly combination of social media and criminal behavior is at the center of Swedish writer and lawyer Malin Persson Giolito's recent novel Quicksand, which takes place in the wealthy suburb of Stockholm where the author grew up.
The story's narrator is 18-year-old Maria "Maja" Norberg, who has become a national and even international celebrity for the worst of reasons. Nine months earlier Maja was involved in a mass shooting at her high school. The principal shooter was her boyfriend Sebastian Fagerman, the son of the wealthiest man in Sweden. The weapons involved belonged to him, and he killed a teacher and several students. But Maja also fired a gun, and while her shooting Sebastian to death could be seen as self-defense, one of her bullets also struck and killed her friend Amanda. In addition, Maja helped Sebastian carry bags of weapons and explosives onto campus, and she sent him numeous disturbing texts in the days preceding the killings, including one in which she said that one of the victims deserved to die. As a result, she has spent nine months in jail, isolated from the other inmates for age and security reasons, and now she is about to go on trial for murder. Despite all the trauma in her life, Maja remains in many respects a typical teenager, and her narrative alternates between tough cynicism and scared vulnerability as she reports on daily developments at the trial and gradually fills in the details of her relationship with Sebastian and the events leading to the killings.
While Maja's parents have plenty of money, Sebastian's father, Claes, is in a whole different financial category, and though they attended the same schools, Sebastian was a year older than Maja, so they were never in the same classes. But when Sebastian has to repeat his senior year, thanks to chronic absence, he decides that Maja should be his girlfriend and invites her to spend the summer on his father's yacht in the Mediterranean. Maja has always been a good student and reasonably popular, but she is attracted not only to Sebastian but by the chance to occupy a different spot in her school's social order. Her parents are charmed by Claes and the potential relationship between the two families and put up no resistance. At first Maja finds Claes charming as well, but she soon discovers the cruelty behind his cheery façade--particularly in his treatment of Sebastian, whom he constantly compares to his bright, successful older brother--when he is noticing him at all. The boys' beauty-queen mother is long out of the picture, and Sebastian has no stabilizing force in his life aside from Maja, who wants to help but isn't sure how to go about it.
Once school starts, it soon becomes clear that Sebastian still has no interest in graduating; he mainly hangs out on campus to spend time with Maja. He is popular with the other students, but only because he frequently invites them to spectacular parties at which alcohol, drugs and sex are the key features and there is no adult supervision. Maja finds that her relationship with Sebastian puts a strain on other school friendships, particularly with Samir, a bright scholarship student from a struggling refugee family. He and Sebastian dislike each other intensely--partly because both of them have feelings for Maja.
As Maja recalls all of this, she copes with the day-to-day strain of her trial. Her parents have hired celebrity attorney Peder Sander, known for defending "lost cause" clients. Author Persson Giolito, despite being a lawyer herself, is not interested in writing a legal thriller. She gives us just enough courtroom action to demonstrate that Sander is a skilled interrogator with a canny sense of how to handle each witness. But Maja's story is not a feel-good account of a bright, attractive girl who beats the legal odds. The author clearly intends it as an indictment of society and the power and corruption of wealth in particular. Claes Fagerman gets away with neglecting and abusing his son because he is so rich that no one dares to question his behavior. Maja's parents do love and care about her, but they are so wrapped up in their own business and social lives that they mistakenly assume she's mature enough to tell them if she has a serious problem. As for Maja herself, she made a number of mistakes that contributed to a terrible tragedy, and despite the mitigating factors of youth and naivete, she and the reader are left to ponder whether or not her actions should be considered criminal or merely negligent.