Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Henning Mankell, Maclehose Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Sweden, TBR 21

‘The Rock Blaster’ by Henning Mankell

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 2020. Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding.

Before Swedish author Henning Mankell became a crime fiction superstar he penned this quietly devastating novel first published in 1973 but only recently translated into English.

The Rock Blaster tells the story of a young man, Oskar Johansson, who is seriously injured in an industrial accident blasting rock with dynamite to make way for a road. He’s not expected to survive — indeed, the local newspaper reports him dead — but he defies the odds, albeit losing an eye and a hand, and manages to return to work as an invalid after he has recuperated.

A working-class hero

The novel charts Oskar’s life from the time of the accident, in 1911, to his death as an old man in 1969. A second thread, which is interleaved throughout, charts the sociological and political changes that occur during Oskar’s lifetime to build up a mesmerising portrait of one man and his place in history.

The story of Oskar is like an iceberg. What you see is only a small part. Most of it is hidden under the surface. That is where the bulk of the ice is, keeping its balance in the water and making its speed and course steady.

Oskar’s life story details his romance with a local girl before the accident to his marriage to that girl’s sister after the accident. Children are born. Jobs are held. Political parties are joined. Activism ensues. There are ups and downs, deprivations and small joys. Grief. Loss. Retirement. Solitude.

His experiences are presented as a series of flashbacks, interviews with an unnamed narrator and other fragments, and it is written in gentle, hypnotic prose, with nary a word wasted.

In early April in 1949, Oskar buys a propaganda poster¹. It is one of the most famous ones, the most widely disseminated and translated, but above all perhaps the most effective graphic analysis of the capitalist system ever published. It is the well-known pyramid, which was first printed in the USA in about 1910.

Fuelled by a sense of social justice and moral outrage, The Rock Blaster rails against capitalism and the ways in which the system uses the working classes to prop up the entire economic edifice of mid-20th century society.

Fight for a cause

I adored this novel. There’s something sublimely honourable about it. I loved the way it puts the working class centre stage and highlights how it is up to every single one of us to fight for what we believe in, to speak up against wrongs and to forge our own path in life. It tapped into my own sense of social justice and made me angry on Oskar’s behalf.

I’m so glad it finally got translated into English — even after all this time (47 years!) so much of this novel is relevant today.

1. You can view that poster on Wikipedia

This is my 18th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book store in August 2020.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Children/YA, Christoffer Carlsson, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, Sweden

‘October is the Coldest Month’ by Christoffer Carlsson

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 181 pages; 2017. Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

A teenage girl unwittingly caught up in a terrible crime is the focus of Christoffer Carlsson’s young adult novel October is the Coldest Month.

Set in Sweden, it tells the story of 16-year-old Vega Gillberg, who lives with her widowed mother, a nightshift worker, and an older brother, Jakob, in a working-class community in Småland, an area known for its huge forests and bogs.

When the police knock on the door looking for Jakob, Vega knows exactly why they want to question him, but she hasn’t seen him for days and she figures he’s gone into hiding — with good reason.

As the story gently unfolds piece by piece, we come to learn of the crime, but Carlsson holds his cards close to his chest and never fully reveals the motive, nor the culprit, until the final pages. It makes for an intriguing, atmospheric read.

Teenage narrator

Told in the first person from Vega’s perspective, October is the Coldest Month cleverly shows how the world of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood opens up when she discovers that good people can do bad things — and vice versa.

It’s written in cool, detached prose but with an eye to evocative description. Here, for example, is how the place in which Vega lives is described:

If you look at a map of Varvet, the area where I live, you can see there are several hundred metres or even a kilometre between people’s homes — at least the ones that are marked on the map. As if God took a handful of houses, garages, barns, stables, and sheds in his giant hand and let them float down to earth, cold and lonely as snowflakes spread out in a funny pattern. The landscape and the forest are the old kind that make you want to keep to the roads and paths even during the day. The summers always pulsate with heat, and in the autumn and winter the air is damp and raw.

Tough lives

The working-class background, depicting tough lives hardened by tough attitudes and violent tendencies, is reminiscent of the deeply reflective work of Per Petterson, one of my favourite realist writers, while the social context of the crime brings to mind Karin Fossum’s wonderful crime novels.

Admittedly, I did not know this was a young adult novel when I bought it (from a local second-hand book shop), but it deals with very adult themes — Vega, for instance, is sexually active — and demonstrates the complexities of life, the moral codes by which we live and the ways women are often abused by men in domestic settings. What’s more, there’s no redemptive ending, but there’s enough here to make the reader think about the far-reaching consequences of our actions.

October is the Coldest Month is a short, sharp, powerful novel with edgy characters and an edgy setting, a compelling tale if you’re looking for an “easy” read with darker undertones. In 2016 it won the Swedish Crime Writers Academy award for Best Crime Novel of the Year for Young Readers.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Simon & Schuster, Sweden, TBR40, Tom Rob Smith

‘The Farm’ by Tom Rob Smith

Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster UK; 384 pages; 2015.

Looking for something easy to read on a recent weekend jaunt to Rome, I extracted Tim Rob Smith’s The Farm from my electronic TBR. A strange and twisted story about madness, lies, secrets and gaslighting, it kept me entertained for the duration of my trip — but I had very mixed feelings about it.

A parental tug-of-war

The tale centres around Daniel, a young man living in London, who gets drawn into a dispute between his parents who now live on a remote farm in Sweden having retired from their business (a garden nursery) a few years ago.

One morning Daniel’s father, Chris, calls him to say that his mother has had a psychotic breakdown and has fled the hospital where she had been committed. He’s warned that his mother is dangerously unwell and potentially violent.

Moments later Daniel receives a phone call from his mother, Tilde, saying that everything he’s been told by his father is a lie and she has the evidence to prove it. “I’m about to board a flight to London. Meet me at Heathrow,” she says.

From thereon in, the narrative is structured around Tilde’s story of what happened to her. She sits in Daniel’s kitchen (and later a hotel room) and tells her story in strict chronological order, interrupted only occasionally by Daniel who wants to clarify things (or jump to conclusions), before a dramatic shift about 100 pages from the end which jumps ahead to reveal that Tilde is now in a psychiatric unit in London.

Who to believe?

What makes The Farm so compelling to read is not quite knowing who to believe: is Tilde really psychotic or is her tale of strange goings on in the local community, presided over by a creepy, manipulative neighbour, Håken, really true? Has she been gaslighted into believing that the crimes to which she alludes are just figments of her imagination? And is the disappearance of Håken’s adopted 16-year-old daughter, the beautiful Mia from Angola, connected to a pedophile ring (or something similar)?

What didn’t quite work for me is never fully knowing Chris’s side of the story. He is largely seen through Tilde’s eyes so we can never be entirely sure if what she’s saying about him is reliable.

Daniel’s own investigation — he heads to Sweden on a solo mission to uncover evidence for himself — seems a bit rushed and he never seems to quite ask the questions I wanted him to ask. This, in turn, made me wonder if his account was unreliable, too?

And the ending itself felt abrupt — and hugely disappointing. I don’t expect everything I read in novels to be neatly tied up at the end, but this left open too many dangling threads for my liking. So while I largely enjoyed the journey I was left disappointed with the destination.

Nevertheless, The Farm is an entertaining, suspenseful (but slow-paced) read. It’s just a pity that what started out as a truly intriguing premise for a story got waylaid somewhere along the line.

This is my 18th book for #TBR40. According to my Amazon account, I purchased this book on 14 March 2015 for £2.85, but I have no idea what prompted me to buy it. Was it someone else’s review, perhaps?

Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Hungary, memoir, Miranda Doyle, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Quercus, Sacha Batthyány, Setting, Sigrid Rausing, Sweden

3 memoirs by Sacha Batthyány, Miranda Doyle and Sigrid Rausing

Three memoirs

‘A Crime in the Family’ by Sacha Batthyány

Non-fiction – memoir; paperback; Quercus; 224 pages; 2018. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell.

A crime in the familyA Crime in the Family is a compelling memoir that looks at two of my favourite subjects: moral culpability and intergenerational guilt.

Written by Swiss journalist Sacha Batthyány in an engaging but forthright tone, it combines autobiography with family history (the Batthyány family is so distinguished it has its own Wikipedia page) and explores what it is like to discover that one of your ancestors has carried out a horrendous war crime that has remained secret for decades.

The book’s main focus is one particular night in the spring of 1945 when Sacha’s great aunt, Countess Margit Batthyány, threw an extravagant party for German aristocrats and Nazi SS officers in her ancestral home —  a castle — in the Hungarian village of Rechnitz. Part of the “entertainment” included the “sport” of shooting 180 Jewish workers dead and burying them in a mass grave.

Batthyány uses family diaries from the time to tell the story and marries this with accounts of his own therapy sessions and journalistic research. At times the book reads like a travelogue, as Batthyány, often accompanied by his father (with whom he has a troubled relationship), visits landmarks associated with his dark family history, including the gulags of Russia and the extermination camp at Auschwitz. He also travels to South America to meet the descendants of some of the Jews who were killed in the massacre.

This is a tragic and moving memoir about complicity, reconciliation and shining a light on the truth. Highly recommended.

‘A Book of Untruths’ by Miranda Doyle

Non-fiction – memoir; hardcover; Faber & Faber; 272 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A Book of Untruths is an unusual but thought-provoking memoir that raises more questions than it answers.

Structured around a series of lies — 70 “untruths” in total — Doyle explores not only the complicated nature of her family (her parents had a troubled marriage and her father was a larger-than-life unpredictable character), but also the unreliability of memoir writing as a whole. How dependable are our memories? Where does fact become fiction? How does storytelling help us make sense of our own lives and the world we live in?

Doyle’s desperate need to understand the complicated nature of her parent’s marriage and her own messy, tangled upbringing (including her complex relationship with her three siblings), lends this memoir a ring of authenticity. Written in exquisite but punchy prose, A Book of Untruths isn’t a misery memoir, but it is fuelled by a deep anger and is undercut with enough self-deprecating humour to make it an enjoyable if somewhat curious read.

‘Mayhem: A Memoir’ by Sigrid Rausing

Non-fiction – memoir; paperback; Penguin; 224 pages; 2018. 

Many people may know Sigrid Rausing as the editor of Granta magazine and the publisher of Granta Books, but she is from a wealthy Swedish family which made its fortune from food packaging (her grandfather co-founded Tetra Pak). Curiously, this memoir isn’t about Rausing’s life; instead it is about her sister-in-law’s death.

Eva Rausing, one of the wealthiest women in the UK, died of a drug overdose aged 48  in the summer of 2012. Her body was found in the London mansion she shared with her husband, Hans (Sigrid’s brother), under a pile of clothes in a barricaded bedroom. Hans was charged with preventing the lawful and decent burial of his wife and later sentenced to 10 months in jail.

Mayhem: A Memoir looks at the outfall of this death on the Rausing family, but much of its focus is on the years preceding the tragedy, for both Hans and Eva were drug addicts (they met in rehab) and were so entrapped by their respective addictions they had given Sigrid and her husband Eric custody of their four children.

Heartfelt, searing and deeply reflective (but occasionally tinged with self-pity), the book emphasises the collateral damage that drug addiction wreaks on entire families and shows that being born into immense wealth offers no protection against tragedy.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Carl-Johan Vallgren, Fiction, Hesperus Press, literary fiction, Setting, Sweden

‘The Merman’ by Carl-Johan Vallgren

The-merman

Fiction – paperback; Hesperus Press; 288 pages; 2013. Translated from the Swedish by Ellen Flynn. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Carl-Johan Vallgren’s The Merman wins the award for the most unusual book I’ve read all year. It’s a mesmerising and slightly surreal tale involving two misfit children and, as the title might suggest, a creature known as a “merman”.

A tough life

The story, which spans October 1983 to May 1984,  is set in a small town on the west coast of Sweden. Here, 14-year-old Petronella (known as Nella) and her 12-year-old brother, Robert, live a fairly difficult life. Their mother spends her days in an alcoholic stupor and their father, who has been in jail for the past year, is too caught up in his criminal life to do much to help his children. Often there is not enough money for food, so Nella and Robert must fend for themselves. Often Nella resorts to shoplifting to get by.

To make matters worse, Robert has learning difficulties and is bullied at school. Nella does her best to protect him, but finds herself caught up in a vicious cycle in which she must pay off his tormentors or be bullied herself.

But there are two good things in Nella’s life: her friendship with the Professor, a local man “who hobbled his way through life on crutches paid for by the health service and read everything he could read and collected everything he could collect” and with Tommy, a boy her own age whom she has known her whole life.

When she asks Tommy for help, she can’t help but notice strange events going on in his family’s dilapidated boat house and this leads to a startling discovery.

Keeping secrets

The blurb on the back of my uncorrected proof goes to great lengths to avoid mentioning what lies hidden in the boat house, but when you call a book The Merman I don’t think there’s much point trying to be coy. There’s a strange creature chained to the floor — half fish, half mammal — which Nella describes as a “sea ape”. It’s only later, with the help of the Professor’s research, that she believes it to be a merman.

It turns out that the merman is being subjected to terrible abuse, mirroring in some way Nella and Robert’s experiences in the hands of the school bullies and their own parents, and his existence is being kept secret from the authorities. Much of the story is about Nella’s endeavours to save the merman from further mistreatment — something she, too, must do in secret — while seemingly ignoring her own personal problems, which are worsening.

As well as being an excellent portrayal of what it is to be an outsider, the book is very good at describing life in a small town and the oppressive nature of life at secondary school.

It’s quite a lovely story, if violent and distressing in places, and has a strong moral message at its core about cruelty and compassion. But it’s a little clunky in places, with a little too much emphasis on explaining things and spelling them out, rather than letting the reader figure things out for themselves. And while the characters of Robert and Nella are richly drawn, many of the other characters, especially the school bully Gerard, are little more than caricatures.

The story, however, flows well and is easy to read — indeed, it slipped down a treat on Boxing Day when I was feeling poorly with a chest cold and was tucked up on the sofa — and it’s sufficiently poignant to provide a feel-good factor when you reach the final pages. In many ways it’s like reading a fairy story, but one that’s designed for adults — perfect, if you like that sort of thing.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Linn Ullmann, literary fiction, Norway, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Sweden

‘A Blessed Child’ by Linn Ullmann

Blessed-child

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 307 pages; 2009. Translated from the Norwegian by Sarah Death.

Proving that there’s more to Scandinavian literature than crime novels, Linn Ullmann’s A Blessed Child is an absorbing family drama about three half-sisters — Erika, Laura and Molly — who spend their summers together on the Swedish island of Hammarsö.

Here, under the watchful eye of their bad-tempered and seemingly indifferent father, Isak, and his second wife, Rosa (Laura’s mother), they enjoy a carefree existence. But during the summer of 1979 a terrible event occurs that changes the girls’ lives forever — and puts paid to their family vacations on the island.

A literary suspense novel

The problem with writing a review of this novel is that it’s hard to say anything more without giving away crucial plot spoilers. The book works as a kind of literary suspense novel because the reader knows from the outset that something bad happens during one of these vacations, but you’re not sure what it is (my initial guess was way off the mark), and so to say anything more would destroy that magic.

The novel is divided into five parts. In the first we meet Erika, the eldest half-sister, who is now middle-aged and determined to visit her 84-year-old father for possibly the last time.

It is 2005 and Isak, a retired gynecologist who made his name as a pioneer of ultrasound, lives alone in the old summer house on Hammarsö, where he moved permanently after Rosa’s death in the early 1990s. After the funeral he made several “noises” about killing himself — “the pills had been procured, the deed carefully planned” — but he never did so.

Recollections of the past

Now as Erika makes the long trek by car, through snow, she recalls her summers with her father — the first was in 1972 — and her rather complicated relationship with him. And she also thinks about her own life, separated from her second husband, who left her, and how much she hates her first husband, a miser who cringed if he ever had to open his wallet.

This forms the pattern of the novel, as each sister takes it in turns to make the journey to Hammarsö — Laura and Molly end up travelling together — recounting the past, focussing especially on their childhood summers, and re-examining their relationship with Isak.

These narrative threads combine to form a rich tapestry of lives and emotions and bonds between siblings, and, in particular, the relationship between fathers and daughters. But because Ullmann expertly contrasts the past with the present, the reader can see how each sister has grown and changed and been shaped by her experiences. You can appreciate the shifting alliances and the nursed hurts and the ways in which personalities have altered as a result of the terrible incident at the heart of this novel. And you can see, too, how each woman has developed traits similar to her father.

Beautiful prose

Ullmann, who is the daughter of actress, author and director Liv Ullmann and director and screenwriter Ingmar Bergman, writes beautifully — and the expert translation by Sarah Death means you would never know the book was originally written in Norwegian. It feels natural and seamless, almost as if it was English from the very start.

As with most Scandinavian novels, the narrative is deeply tied to the landscape, nature and the seasons. The beauty of Hammarsö in summer is a major focus — the woods, the sea, the long grass by the dunes — and the ways in which people’s lives are put at the mercy of the elements — wind, storms and the raging ocean.

But Ullmann’s greatest strength is her ability to write candidly and truthfully about adolescence. There are aspects of Erika’s story which are deeply affecting but later turn to alarm as she navigates her sexuality for the first time and tries to hide her affection for a local boy, who is regularly bullied, from the bitchy teenage crowd she has fallen in with.

A Blessed Child, Ullmann’s fourth novel (a fifth novel, The Cold Song, was published last year), was shortlisted for the Brage Prize in 2005, was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2009.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Kjell Eriksson, Publisher, Setting, Sweden, Thomas Dunne Books

‘The Princess of Burundi’ by Kjell Eriksson

Princess-of-Burundi

Fiction – paperback; Thomas Dunne Books; 300 pages; 2006. Translated from the Swedish by Ebba Segerberg.

Kjell Eriksson’s The Princess of Burundi won the Swedish Academy Award for Best Crime Novel in 2002 — long before Stieg Larsson hit the scene.

It’s not your typical Scandinavian crime novel in which a single police detective takes centre stage; this one tends to focus on a whole police department and follows the steps they take, working together, to solve a brutal crime.

A man goes missing

The crime in question is the disappearance of John Jonsson, a dedicated father and collector of tropical fish (the title of the book is the name of a fish), who fails to return home after work one evening shortly before Christmas. His body is found the next day. There are stab wounds to his chest and arms, his fingers have been severed and there are cigarette burns on his body which indicate he may have been tortured.

But in quiet Uppsala, a university town north of Stockholm, who would want “Little John”, as he is known, dead? Had he got caught up in something illegal with his brother, a known criminal? Or had he wracked up gambling debts?

When a local woman is killed in her home a few days later, police wonder if the murders are linked. Is there a serial killer on the loose?

Exceptionally nuanced novel

While the blurb on the American edition of this book is slightly misleading — it claims a “killer terrorizes an entire frightened town” — the focus of this exceptionally nuanced novel is more on the outfall of the murder on the victims and family members left behind. John was married with a teenage son, both of whom are wracked by grief and unable to comprehend why anyone would want him murdered. And then there is his brother Lennart, who is filled with so much venom and rage he will do almost anything to avenge John’s death.

Coupled with this exploration of a family’s sudden bereavement, is a detailed police procedural in which we are introduced to a vast cast of law-enforcers — a dramatis personæ would have been helpful — all of whom are dealing with their own problems and insecurities but are wedded together like a tightly knit family.

Chief among these is Anne Lindell, a police inspector currently on maternity leave, who can’t keep her nose out of the case. (I note that the British editions of this novel bill it as the first in the “Inspector Anne Lindell series”.)

World weary chief

But my personal favourite was the world weary chief Ottosson, a man who has been in the job so long “evil was exhausting him”. During meetings and briefings, in which he holds sway, a philosophical tone sneaks into his arguments — he’s less focused on the crime in question and more interested in the underlying social reasons behind it. Not all of his colleagues agree, but there are some interesting debates about social welfare, immigration and the decline in educational standards that make The Princess of Burundi an intelligent read.

It is a dark, brooding, atmospheric story, one that is deeply insightful and perceptive. And while the solution to the crime isn’t particularly satisfying, as a study of the effects of that crime and the ways in which the police go about their business it is a very fine book indeed.

More in the series

There are several more in the series which have been translated into English, including The Cruel Stars of the Night, The Demon of Dakar and The Hand that Trembles. I liked the first one enough to want to read the rest…at some point.

Author, Åsa Larsson, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Maclehose Press, Publisher, Setting, Sweden

‘Until Thy Wrath Be Past’ by Åsa Larsson

Until-thy-wrath-be-passed

Fiction – hardcover; MacLehose Press; 317 pages; 2011. Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I remember how we died.

So begins Åsa Larsson’s haunting Scandinavian crime thriller Until Thy Wrath Be Past (the title refers to a passage from the Book of Job).

Set in rural Sweden, it tells the story of two teenage lovers who disappear while diving in a secluded —and frozen — lake one winter’s day. Their bodies are never found, but the beyond-the-grave narrator, who begins the book, reveals that they met with foul play.

When Wilma Persson’s body surfaces in the River Thorne, far from the lake, during the spring-time thaw, the authorities assume she simply drowned. But why are her lungs filled with water from a different source? And why is there green paint underneath her fingernails?

Enter prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson and police inspector Anna-Maria Mella, two “alpha females”, who launch an investigation into the girl’s death and a hunt for her boyfriend’s body.

This fast-paced narrative, which begins on April 16 and concludes on May 3 (the dates act as chapter headings), is largely told in the third person. But early on in the novel, the voice of Wilma, the dead girl, butts in:

I go to visit the prosecutor. She’s the first person to see me since I died. She’s wide awake. Sees me clearly when I sit down on her bed.

Admittedly this supernatural element* may not appeal to all readers, but it gives the story an added dimension: that of the victim, who can tell her version of what really happened. And it also gives us, the reader, a vital piece of information that the police know nothing about: the pair had discovered a plane at the bottom of the lake, a plane that had been carrying supplies for the Wehrmacht in 1943.

As it turns out, the investigation’s success hinges on the discovery of the plane — and its reason for being there. Larsson uses this to devastating effect, by interleaving the narrative with flashbacks to the Second World War in which Sweden collaborated with the Germans. (This seems to be a recurrent theme in Swedish crime fiction.)

What particularly makes this novel work is not just the superb characterisation (both Martinsson and Mella feel like real flesh-and-blood women, one of whom juggles motherhood with her career, another who is trying to make a passionate but complicated long-distance relationship work), but the subsidiary plot lines — the police dog-handler has an unrequited “thing” for Martinsson, which is strangely moving — and the way in which Larsson keeps the momentum, and the suspense, on overdrive. She is excellent at what I call the foreshadowing effect, giving us little clues that bad things are going to happen up ahead. For example, after one character makes what seems like an innocent phonecall to a neighbour, she writes:

He cannot know what a terrible mistake that is. What consequences that telephone call will have.

And of course it wouldn’t be a proper Scandinavian crime novel without plenty of moody and atmospheric descriptions:

A week passes. Snow crashes down from the trees. Sighs deeply as it collapses into the sunny warmth. Bare patches appear. The southern sides of antills heat up in the sun. The snow buntings return. Martinsson’s neighbour Sivving Fjallborg finds bear tracks in the forest. The big sleep of winter is over.

Until Thy Wrath Be Past is a terrific thriller, and while it’s part of the “Rebecka Martinsson crime series” of which there are three previous novels, it can be safely read as a standalone. I found it to be a heart-hammering read — the first chapter is one of the most exciting first chapters I’ve read in a long while — with a multi-layered plot and a satisfying, if slightly Hollywoodish, ending.

* If that’s not your kind of thing, it might help to know the girl’s first-person account begins to wane the further you get into the book.

Author, Black Swan, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Johan Theorin, Publisher, Setting, Sweden

‘The Darkest Room’ by Johan Theorin

The-Darkest-Room

Fiction – paperback; Black Swan; 475 pages; 2009. Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy.

Earlier this year I read Johan Theorin‘s debut novel Echoes from the Dead and was immensely impressed with it. I was therefore keen to read the follow-up, The Darkest Room, which is the second book in Theorin’s planned quartet set on the Swedish island of Öland.

The novel is not so much about a crime, but what it is like to live in a haunted house where mysterious things happen for which there is no logical explanation. Or at least, that’s how the book feels when you begin reading it.

This is largely because the story revolves around a young family — Joakim, his wife Katrine and their two small children, Livia and Gabriel — who move from the Stockholm suburbs to renovate an old dilapidated manor house on the coast of Öland. The house, which was designed for the family that looks after twin lighthouses on little islands out at sea, was originally built from timber salvaged from a German vessel that was shipwrecked in 1846. According to Swedish folklore, it is bad luck to build a house from the spoils of a shipwreck, and there are plenty of local ghost stories attached to the house. But is it really haunted?

He [Joakim] stopped in the grass by the shore and took a long look at the buildings behind them. Isolated and private location, as it had said in the ad. Joakim still found it difficult to get used to the size of the main house; with its white gables and red wooden walls, it rose up at the top of the sloping grassy plain. Two beautiful chimneys sat on top of the tiled roof like towers, black as soot. A warm yellow light glowed in the kitchen window and on the veranda; the rest of the house was pitch black.

Odd little things do start to occur, which makes Joakim think twice. But when one member of his family dies suddenly, and in mysterious circumstances, it’s easy to see how a sensible adult might begin to believe that there are supernatural forces at work.

But to dismiss The Darkest Room as a horror story is to miss the point. There’s a lot more going on here, helped by multiple story lines in which each character has a dark secret to keep.

The first involves Henrik Jansson, a local tradesman, who goes into partnership with two small-time criminals, Tommy and Freddy Serelius. Together the three of them embark on a series of burglaries in which they steal valuables from holiday homes along the coast.

Then there’s the story of Tilda Davidsson, a new police officer, who is conducting a sordid affair with a former colleague. Tilda is also embarking on a personal research project, in which she “interviews” her great uncle in order to find out about her late grandfather.

This is the glue that melds all the story lines together, because her great uncle is Gerloff, the retired sea captain now living in a residential home for the elderly, who made his first appearance in Theorin’s earlier novel Echoes from the Dead. Gerloff is essentially an amateur sleuth, and it is his wisdom and pet theories that drives the narrative forward and helps Tilda in her official investigations. But he has a secret to keep, too, as does Joakim, who’s drug-addicted sister still haunts his conscience.

Theorin interleaves a fourth and final thread throughout these other character-driven threads, and this is about the history of the manor house. The history comes in the form of book extracts written by Mirja Rambe, Katrine’s mother, covering the period 1846 to 1962. (The Darkest Room is set somewhere in the mid 1990s, going by the age of Gerloff and the lack of mobile phone technology.) These extracts help to shape the idea that the house is haunted, because it reveals a rather sordid succession of troubles and deaths associated with those that have previously lived in it.

And there’s constant reference to Öland’s infamous blizzards, which roll in almost unannounced and claim lives. (Interestingly, the original Swedish title of the book was Nattfåk [Night Blizzard] and Theorin includes a short essay he wrote about the blizzard at the rear of the book.)

Told over the space of three months (the book is divided into sections labelled “October”, “November” and “December”), it is filled with secrets, ghost stories and Swedish folklore. The darkest room of the title turns out to be a secret room in the barn attached to the manor house, but it could also be seen as a metaphor for the secrets we all hold dear to us.

While I preferred Theorin’s debut to this one, The Darkest Room is an effortless read with plenty of momentum, and the resolution is a believable — and surprising — one.

The Darkest Room was named the Best Swedish Crime Novel in 2008 and won the CWA International Dagger in 2010.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, crime/thriller, Fiction, Henning Mankell, Publisher, Setting, Sweden, Vintage

‘The Man from Beijing’ by Henning Mankell

Man-from-beijing

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 560 pages; 2011. Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Despite liking Scandinavian crime novels, I’ve never quite got around to reading anything by Henning Mankell, arguably the grand master of the genre. I’ve been reluctant to read his Inspector Wallander mysteries because there are 11 books in the series, a major commitment for someone like me who would want to read them all in the correct order.

But The Man From Beijing is a stand-alone book, so there was no need to worry about over-committing myself. As it turns out, it was an entertaining read, and one that was not terribly demanding, but I’m not sure that it’s encouraged me to go down the Wallander route — although I’m prepared to be convinced otherwise.

The story starts off with a real show-stopper: nineteen people, all related, are slaughtered in a sleepy Swedish village in the dead of winter. It is Sweden’s biggest mass murder. The media are crawling all over it, but the police don’t have a clue as to who might have committed it. Was it a lunatic gone mad with a machete? Or a thoroughly planned exercise by a team of killers? What, exactly, was the motive?

But The Man From Beijing is not a police procedural. The story is told largely through the eyes of Birgitta Roslin, a perfectly nice middle-aged judge from Helsingborg, who is distantly related to a couple of the victims. In her working life Birgitta has seen and done it all (her experiences, related as back story, serve to highlight the dark underbelly of Swedish society). When she is signed off work with high blood pressure, she decides to fill her days investigating the mass murder — as you do.

She has a few run-ins with the detective in charge of the investigation — a bullish woman by the name of Vivi Sundberg — but on the whole it’s clear that Birgitta is miles ahead of the police in terms of finding leads and potential suspects. But how can she connect the red ribbon found at the scene with a nineteenth century diary? And who was the mysterious Chinese man who booked into a local hotel the night before the murder?

Just as Birgitta’s investigation begins to really take off, Mankell does something unexpected. He takes the story back to 1863, at a time when three Chinese brothers were press-ganged into working on the railroad that links the American east coast with the west. What does this have to do with the murder in Sweden more than a century later? Ah, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?

I think the major problem I had with this book was its structure. It morphs into a kind of political thriller, and the event which opens the book in such stunning style gets almost forgotten as Mankell builds up an extensive web of corruption across three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa.

As you might expect from the title, a large chunk of the book is set in China. In fact, Birgitta, who wanted to join the Red Guard in her youth, visits the country on a spur-of-the-moment decision to continue her unofficial enquiries (the fact there is no mention of acquiring a travel visa was just one of many factual omissions that annoyed me while reading this book).

The China depicted here is modern and vibrant, but it is also deeply divided. Just as Mankell makes undisguised commentary about Sweden’s social problems through the criminal cases over which Birgitta must preside, in the Chinese parts of the novel he makes more undisguised commentary about a rampant economic system, Communism and corruption. Indeed, he ties them all together, and then throws in a semi-plausible plot about China wanting to “export” its poverty-stricken peasants to Zimbabwe and Mozambique in exchange for helping to develop those countries. (I rather suspect Mankell read Mark Leonard’s What Does China Think? as part of his research, because he regurgitates a lot of the facts that Leonard presents in his book, including the notion that China donates huge sums of money to African nations that have been turned down for loans by the International Monetary Fund.)

As a thriller, the story has a sufficiently menacing undertone to make one keep turning the pages. But as a crime novel it lacks punch, probably because the killer is clearly identified very early on in the book. Mankell then spends some 300-plus pages explaining how that killer came to do what he did.

On the whole, I enjoyed The Man From Beijing as a “holiday read” (I was travelling around Ireland at the time), but it’s a woolly book in need of some tight editing. It is easily 200 pages too long. Still, the saving grace is Birgitta, a convincing character with just the right touch of paranoia, to keep the story pedalling along.