Swedish crime: Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room

imageThe Darkest Room by Johan Theorin has been sitting on my To Be Read pile for a while. It was only when I finished it that I realised it’s the second of a quartet of books, each set on the island of Öland, Sweden’s second largest island and the smallest of its traditional provinces. Having said that, I think the series must be based more on the setting rather than any plot elements, as The Darkest Room reads like a stand-alone book.

WINTER 1846.

This is where my book begins, Katrine, the year when the manor house at Eel Point was built. For me the house was more than a house where my mother and I lived, it was the place where I became an adult.

…I have heard the dead whispering in the walls. They have so much to tell.

So begins the story of a house on Öland where a young couple, Katrine and Joakim, take up residence with their two children after a family tragedy in Stockholm. This is part of a story within a story, written by Katrine’s artist mother Mirja Rambe, herself the daughter of a famous artist. This secondary story is a tale of lives lost at the house over the centuries, and the souls of the dead who, according to local legend, come back at Christmas.

The larger narrative that makes up the central plot weaves around the points of view of three characters: Katrine’s husband, Joakim; Henrik, a petty criminal; and a police officer, Tilda, who has come to the island to establish a police presence at a time when the community is beset by burglaries and vandalism. These characters’ lives resonate with echoes of past injustices and family secrets. They are drawn together in a thrilling climax during a Christmas blizzard when their fates are decided.

The Darkest Room was voted Best Swedish Crime Novel of 2008 and it’s not hard to see why. The story captivates the reader from page one and keeps intriguing till the end.

~

Author: Johna Theorin
Publisher: Transworld
Date: 2009
ISBN:9780552774611
I own a copy.

The Neighbour by Julie Proudfoot – award-winning debut novella

The Neighbour Julie ProudfootJulie Proudfoot’s debut novella The Neighbour hit my radar when I heard it won the Seizure Viva La Novella Prize earlier this month. When I read the pitch, I knew I’d have to read the book.

When Luke is implicated in the tragic death of a child, he struggles to assert his innocence to those around him. While the accident invokes haunting memories of Luke’s late brother, who died when they were children, he strives to maintain a grip on reality as his relationships begin to unravel.

The Neighbour sounded exactly the kind of story to slot into place beside books I’d recently been bingeing on: narratives that deal with dark sides of suburban life.

I was right. And wrong.

The Neighbour does deal with dark aspect of suburbia, but its impact is different from other writers’ work. Whereas books like Dawn Barker’s Let Her Go tease the reader with the possibility that something awful will happen, and Wendy James’ The Lost Girls and Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks make the reader dread the revelation of what (awful) thing has already happened, the terrible event in The Neighbour happens early and happens hard, leaving the reader in no doubt. When it occurs, it’s of such a horrific nature that its impact reverberates throughout the rest of the story. (I’m not the only one who had to put the book down to recover – see Sean’s review at Adventures of a Bookonaut.)

The Neighbour is told primarily from the point of view of Luke, a man whose life is tethered to that of his neighbours, Angie and Ryan, by more than proximity. The neighbours socialise together; Luke helps Ryan rebuild his shed and fix things around the house; their small children, Luke’s son Sam and Angie and Ryan’s daughter Lily, climb the fence to play with one another. The closeness would appear to be near idyllic, until an accident creates a seemingly unbridgeable rift between them.

Luke’s unravelling as a result of the accident is excruciating to follow. We witness him experiencing a pathological form of dissociation which makes his behaviour appear more and more threatening. As the story progressed, I kept on having to pause, to take a breath, as the narrative tension tightened. The suspense of the story is created by the question, “How far down will he go?”

In some respects the novella, particularly its ending, reminded me of a much gentler story, Charlotte Wood’s Animal People. Both stories deal with a flawed, male protagonist; neither man is good at relationships. However, whereas Wood’s novel ends in a satisfying catharsis, Proudfoot’s evokes more pathos, even horror.

For me, the greatest impact of the story came from its meditation on death, or, more specifically, on the illusion of control over death – and life.

He looks for that window of time between life and death, that state of grace where life can be given or taken. Perhaps it’s the moment when meaning is assigned to a life lived, or left gaping and gasping for forgiveness, that moment when a person can still be saved by those with the power to. If there is such a moment. Maybe there’s no such moment. Maybe you’re alive, then you’re dead. (p 105)

Proudfoot is to be congratulated, not only on her award, but also on the publication of a beautifully written and powerful story.

~

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Authors Challenge. A copy of The Neighbour was kindly provided to me by the publisher.

Title: The Neighbour
Author: Julie Proudfoot
Publisher: Seizure
Date of publication: June 3, 2014
ISBN: 1922057983 (ISBN13: 9781922057983)

 

AWW2012 Wrap-up

When I signed up for the Australian Women Writers challenge, I opted for “Franklin-fantastic” level: read 10 books and review four.

My reading selections weighed heavily in favour of literary works and crime, so I’m more of a “Dabbler” than an “Devoted Eclectic”, despite the name of this review blog, but I did manage to include some other genres, including historical fiction/romance, children’s fiction and contemporary women’s fiction.

The first three books are ones I discussed in depth. With Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, I gave a personal response, rather than a review. The remainder are books I either wrote a (sometimes very brief) review on Good Reads, or didn’t review.

  1. Dreams of Speaking by Gail Jones (Literary fiction)
  2. “What’s all the fuss about?” Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing (Historical fiction/romance)
  3. “Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy and the challenge to moral thinking; or Towards a Systems’ Theory view of Subjectivity” (Young Adult/literary fiction):
  4. PM Newton, The Old School (Literary crime fiction; debut author)
  5. Tansy Rayner Roberts, Sea Castle (Children’s fiction)
  6. Angela Savage, The Half-Child (Crime fiction)
  7. Melanie Joosten, Berlin Syndrome (Literary crime fiction; debut author)
  8. Favel Parrett, Past the Shallows (Literary fiction; debut author)
  9. Rosalie Ham, Summer at Mount Hope (Historical fiction)
  10. Lisa Heidke, Stella Makes Good (Contemporary women’s fiction)

For this challenge I went out of my comfort zone. Apart from readings books by friends, it’s years since I read literary fiction, children’s stories, historical romance or contemporary women’s fiction. My preferred genre is psychological suspense.

What surprised me was how much I enjoyed the books for which I’m clearly not the target audience. I could easily become a fan of Lisa Heidke, for example, and I’d like to read some adult fantasy by Tansy Rayner Roberts. One book I was very excited to discover and which has remained with me was PM Newton’s debut novel, The Old School, which blends literary fiction and crime. But the stand out for me was Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy. I’ll let my review/discussion reveal why.

I intend to continue reading books by Australian women writers throughout 2012 and to coordinate the AWW blog, Twitter feed and Facebook page, but for now I plan to take a break and concentrate on my own writing. (This post has been cross-posted with my personal blog.)

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