A Review of The Shape of Guilt

Georgina Bruce on a novel by Lisa Fransson

The Shape of Guilt (époque press, 2023) is a deeply strange, unsettling, and in some ways difficult first novel from bilingual writer Lisa Fransson. Fransson is a celebrated children’s author in her native Sweden, where she’s well known for her beautiful dark tales. She’s also written several short stories in English, many of which have been published in prestigious genre magazines and anthologies. Now she’s brought some of her fantastical and fairy-tale sensibilities to her first full-length work for adults. It’s a psychological horror story which showcases her precision with language as much as her preoccupation with dark and disturbing themes.

The novel deals with fractured relationships in a family where each member is tortured by guilt and loss. Young adult Alex is in hospital after an apparent suicide attempt. His mother watches over him day and night, while his father, aunt and uncle, and friends also visit. It’s not clear who this extended family are more concerned with – mother or son, or their own complicated and guilty selves. The dysfunction in the family seems to cohere around the mother – Our Mummy – who we discover was sectioned when the loss of her baby, Alex’s brother, precipitated a mental health crisis. She has been in and out of institutions ever since, and finds herself as a result almost entirely discredited and undermined by the rest of the family.

As the novel unfolds, it becomes apparent that while Our Mummy has a tenuous grip on reality, she has an absolutely iron grasp over her love for her son. This love is by turns suffocating and liberating: the love of a mother who is willing to do absolutely anything for her child. But her sacrifices are also driven by guilt – not only her guilt, but the familial guilt that has been displaced and projected onto her. She is the scapegoat for everyone’s crimes, sins and weaknesses – a role that seems inevitable, impossible to reject, and which leads ultimately to a terrible, horrible climax.

While the plot is relatively simple, much emotion and psychological terror adheres to every scene in the novel. Horror novels, in my opinion, often focus overmuch on plot, on the terrible events that take place and the fear they induce in the characters. Many great horror authors use extreme emotion to drag a reader through a plot packed with dramatic events. But to my mind, it’s the use of innovative structure that most reliably engenders terror in a reader. Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is perhaps the ultimate example of how a novel can be structured to completely disarm the reader and distort their sense of reality, literally spinning them in circles and sending them down one scary rabbit hole after another.

Fransson’s novel uses a much simpler, but still effective, structural technique to loosen the reader’s hold on reality. Her novel, already replete with psychological and emotional extremes, is made utterly disorienting through an extraordinary sleight of hand in the narrative structure. She tells the story through the point of view of a stuffed toy rabbit belonging to Robert, Alex’s deceased brother. This object is imbued with animus and a form of consciousness. It stands as an avatar of the mother-son relationship and acts as a psychic conduit between their inner worlds. Somehow it is both omniscient and pathetic – a cursed object and a sacred totem. Sublime and ridiculous all at once.

It is not simply that the toy bunny is a physical form of Robert’s ghost, although it is certainly ‘the shape of guilt’ which haunts and torments Our Mummy. It’s never made clear to the reader whether the bunny is articulating the disembodied projections of the mother, the son, or both. Maybe it is simply so saturated with emotion and memory that it emanates its own character that the mother or son or both translate into their conscious thoughts. Or perhaps it is psychosis that gives this object a voice.

The result of this narrative instability is that the reader is never sure precisely where to look for meaning; we are constantly kept off balance and our sympathies shift throughout the story as new possibilities are revealed.

This is fascinating and strange, and makes for a very subtle depiction of mental illness. The narrative technique situates the reader in such a precarious position that, like the characters, he or she is unsure of the boundary between reality and fantasy. While the bunny has a sort of weight that holds the mother–son unit together, it has no way of anchoring the reader in the security of a known world. As such, it keeps us uneasy and on the edge of confusion throughout the novel.

Fransson uses many other techniques of defamiliarisation, but notably it’s the language that alternately beguiles and alienates the reader. Her fluid, labile descriptions – ‘the floor flows under her feet’ – fall apart into dissociated images and fragments; even, at one point, disintegrating into typographical weirdness reminiscent of the Mouse’s tale in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (or perhaps a subtle homage to House of Leaves?). The reader is asked to work at the novel, to puzzle out the meanings. But the meanings proliferate and bloom and die like so many thoughts passing through a dysregulated mind.

If I have a criticism of Fransson’s novel, it is that the experience of disorientation is a little too intense in places. In the beginning of the novel, for example, a more secure footing in reality would have given rise to a greater feeling of disturbance as the ground gives way beneath us. Or, in the horrible climax of the novel, a little more stark reality would have made the grim events more powerfully shocking. If everything is nightmarish and confusing, then it is harder for the writer to create a moment of impact that truly stands out and surprises the reader.

However, there is also something to be said for entering the novel as though one were entering a dream. The familiar is distorted almost beyond recognition here, and as such the novel creates its own strange world. After finishing the last page, I felt as though I’d woken from a fugue. Throughout the next hours, the novel unfolded its meanings in my mind, which had the odd effect of making it progressively more disturbing after I’d closed the covers. This is a book which rewards reflection and a second reading.

Not every reader wants to be beguiled, tricked, puzzled, manipulated and left stranded by a novel. But for this reader, the reward is a gift of empathy and insight, and a reading experience that thematically echoes the content of the book. When the structure of a novel manipulates the reader into an experience of its theme, I consider this to be an example of excellent craftsmanship, and for me, these are the kinds of books I like the best.

The Shape of Guilt is not a perfect debut but it’s one that takes risks, and rewards the committed reader. It’s exciting to wonder which terrifying places Fransson will take us to next. ∎

Georgina Bruce is a writer. Her ‘deliciously evocative’ debut novella Honeybones is available from TTA Press; the ‘astonishing, totally absorbing’ This House of Wounds, her debut short story collection, can be purchased from Undertow Publications; and she also has a story in Out of the Darkness (edited by Dan Coxon) from Unsung Stories. Her collection House on the Moon is available from Black Shuck Books.

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