Norstedts, 2010. ISBN: 9789113027203
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2011:1
This concise psychological thriller is a chilling, atmospheric debut. It has been beautifully, if self-consciously, crafted by one of Sweden’s most highly regarded young critics, who is also an art historian. The leitmotif – and indeed the cover image - is a drowned, Pre-Raphaelite female figure. This is a novel about the complexity of feelings between sisters, but also about some of the darker sides of relationships: power play and sexual attraction, human contradictions, egotism and betrayal. At just under 170 pages, focused on three characters and with, in essence, unity of place, it has the claustrophobic feel of a chamber play. In high summer, Marina takes the train to Skåne to visit her sister Stella and her new, rather older husband Gabriel (the names can clearly be interpreted symbolically) at the lovely old cottage and garden he has inherited. Events are seen through Marina’s eyes: she finds her sister a little distant and implicitly critical of Marina’s slow progress through her literary studies at university. Stella is outwardly a driven professional; it occurs to Marina that marrying Gabriel is the first illogical thing her elder sister has done in her life, and Stella admits to Marina on one occasion that she does not always find him easy to live with. Stella is a committed and creative gardener, both at the cottage and in her job as head of the parks and gardens department of the local council. Gabriel is an author, a fiction writer with a rather obsessive taste for morbid Romantic poetry. He works from home, so he and Marina, the more malleable sister who is not long out of adolescence and still emotionally questing, are thrust together during the day. Both of them seem to relish this; there is strong sexual chemistry at work, and when Gabriel kisses her, it is a moment both she – and we, the readers – have long anticipated. The tension in and between the characters is mirrored by the sultry, brooding heat. The perfume of the flowers is intense and cloying; blackfly cluster stickily on the nasturtiums; the rubbish rots. Everything is vegetal and organic, as in the motto Bohman has chosen for her book: the lines from Ola Hansson’s poem ‘Notturno’ are about how we are all part of the same elemental force as the natural world. As if to underline this still further, Stella anxiously confides in her sister that she is pregnant. The heat is humid and dripping, almost tropical, and by the time Marina’s visit ends, a storm is long overdue. In the second part of the novel, the mood changes sharply. Tragically, Stella has drowned at the end of the summer, in the little lake near the cottage. Marina returns to help Gabriel sort out her things. Her resentment of Stella has been replaced by grief and a sense of loss, an urge to know more about the sister from whom she had drifted apart. But she is also still fascinated by, and physically attracted to, Gabriel, believing she can handle him better than Stella did, and very soon they are in a sexual relationship. He plies her with wine and his gourmet cooking as before, and seems pleased when she wears Stella’s clothes. Events take a very disturbing turn as his sexual advances become increasingly bullying and humiliating, and Marina finds she even enjoys his sadism. Then she discovers a secret diary in which Stella writes of similar treatment she received, and of Gabriel’s brutal threats and controlling behaviour. Neighbours, an elderly couple, report that Stella fled to their house on one occasion. Routines that seemed pleasant and domesticated on Marina’s first visit take on a sinister undertone. As she reads more of the diary, including the account of Gabriel’s angry reaction when Stella lost (or aborted?) their baby, Marina’s fascination turns to fear, a fear that proves well founded when Gabriel burns her with his cigarette to claim her as his own – just as he did to Stella. Marina is by now convinced that Gabriel drowned her sister and could easily kill her too: the kitchen is full of his sharp knives, after all. The reappearance of overpowering flower scents in the form of a bowl of hyacinths in the house can be interpreted as a warning signal. Marina, who has spent hours locked in her room, finally stumbles across the field in the snow and darkness to seek refuge with the neighbours. The closing pages of the novel, however, find her back at the cottage with Gabriel. The lushness and heady scents of summer in Part 1 are succeeded by the monochrome cold and wet of late autumn and the death of nature in Part 2, as the characters play out their deeply disturbing drama. An unsettling, open ending makes this story all the more queasily memorable.