How could it be in a country where redistribution policies and welfare reforms have turned Sweden into one of the most egalitarian nations in the world? There is free education and health-care, with a safety net so tightly-knit no one could slip through, and the country claims to be one of the most feminist places on Earth. Yet for some unspoken reason there was no action, no justice, no story concerning the mass sexual assaults. A problem seemed to be that the vast majority of the aggressors were apparently Afghans, and these were people the country was committed to help; economic migrants/refugees/asylum-seekers, call them what you will.

As Norman notes, crime phenomenon Stieg Larsson and his "Millennium" trilogy of books took the world by storm in the first decade of the 2000s, with a government agency concluding that the "Stieg Larsson Effect" had brought about an irreversible transformation of the Swedish brand: "The events [in the books] are in stark contrast to established stereotypes about Sweden: the safe country that many people imagine to be an egalitarian paradise turns out to contain extremism, racism, oppression of women, conspiracies, and a system that indirectly sanctions abuse of the weakest members of society … ill-will lurks even in the most idyllic of places and nature provides no refuge from evil … The notion of Sweden as a conflict-free model nation is shattered."

Norman's book is a non-fiction variant of this Swedish noir, as she contemplates the realisation that perhaps her country is not the exemplary democracy she had been brought up to admire. Fears of being personally victimised for speaking ill of Sweden, she notes, are as prevalent among segments of her own countrymen as among dissidents in the dictatorships she has scrutinised in Cuba, Zimbabwe and Venezuela.

The author looks at the dark themes lurking beneath the polished surface of a Sweden that she describes as predictable and secure but boring. One of the country's attributes is that it boasts the world's oldest free press, while simultaneously having a history of homogeneity and social engineering that has created a culture "where few dare dissent from consensus, those who do are driven to extremes and there is no place for outsiders, even those who conform".

An example is the punishment meted out to Katerina Janouch, a Swedish author born in the Czech Republic who, on Czech television in January 2017, painted a dark picture of Sweden in which there are no-go zones, in which asylum-seekers lie about their age to pass as minors, and more and more Swedes feel endangered and are learning to handle guns. Janouch talked about pensioners who couldn't afford to eat and about patients dying because of long queues in the unable-to-cope health system.

The result was criticism from the top in the form of Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, her Swedish publisher dissociated itself from her remarks, and a bookstore removed her popular books from its shelves. This is brannmarka, a Swedish verb meaning to mark something with a burn. A heated branding iron is mainly used on livestock but in the Middle Ages was used against heretics, burning a "B" for blasphemy on their foreheads. Former Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson liked to warn: ‘I, as well as the government to which I belong, will, in every context, forcefully brannmarka those who speak ill of Sweden abroad."

Author Norman alternates her chapters between following some contemporary characters and looking back on the history that formed present-day Sweden, with its engineered social homogeneity. There was also an engineered biological homogeneity: women who applied to have an abortion were often coerced into sterilisation to weed out the "feeble-minded" from society.

She depicts the Swedish system through its outcasts. For instance, there is Lars, born in Bangladesh in 1976 and adopted by Swedish farmers when he was a baby. "I am a nigger," Lars says. "I will always be a nigger in the eyes of others. I will never become Swedish. I will never be accepted as such. It's a very painful realisation." Therefore, he has become a right-wing extremist, a "black Nazi", with others.

Other chapters follow Chang Frick, the son of a Polish Jew and a Roma Traveller, who is known at school as svartskalle, or "black skull", a derogatory term for people with dark hair and brown eyes. "Go back to Poland, Chang! You know we don't want you here," he is told. Chang has never been to Poland and his mother has never spoken Polish to him. Sweden is all he knows.

Or Samvel from Armenia. When he needs to go to a dentist, the obvious choice is the Folktandvarden (The People's Dentistry) launched in Sweden in 1938. Being from a former Soviet state, Samvel has an aversion towards any institution that contains the word "folk". He likes to provoke, to question rules rather than follow them blindly.

Such an approach does not work in Sweden: it's depressing that when Samvel does rebel, taking the time to really question something, he still finds himself reaching the same conclusion as the one already arrived at by experts. Sweden is made for existential angst, he concludes: the darkness, the cold, the fact that people like to light so many candles at home. A normal Swedish home looks like a home in mourning to the average Armenian.

Norman reflects on the rise of the Swedish "unimind", or collective mentality, and the "opinion corridor" that encapsulates the national thought. Hans, a middle-aged psychologist who tries to interest the media in the sexual assaults at the music festival, ponders: "In Sweden, everyone knows so well what the accepted position on every given issue is; what others are thinking and how they will judge you if you deviate from that."

Thousands of unaccompanied minors have arrived in Sweden since the refugee crisis of 2015 and Sweden is quickly becoming a different place. This country that takes pride at first adopts a no-walls policy and welcomes those in need. Then the government struggles to deal with the asylum-seekers and closes the border. No other European country has such a large non-European proportion of its population. The "opinion corridor" has turned.

So might readers' thoughts about Sweden, as Norman wonders what has happened to the country and where it is going.


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