Shelf Awareness Book Talk: *Drowned*, by Therese Bohman

cover of DROWNED by Therese Bohman (via
Therese Bohman (Swedish-language blog) (Twitter)
translated by Marlaine Delargy
Other Press (May 22, 2012), Paperback original (ISBN 1590515242 / 9781590515242)
Fiction, 224 pages

A version of this review was originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (May 29, 2012).

Opening lines: “The train is exactly on time as it pulls into the platform. My whole body feels listless as I stand up and get my bag down from the luggage rack above the window, There’s something wrong with my seat, with the mechanism that’s supposed to stop the backrest when you’ve reclined it into the position you want. I’ve been pushed backwards every time the train has accelerated, and several times during the journey I have woken up and discovered that I am practically lying down. I don’t like reclining seats too far back, the feeling of them disappearing behind me always makes me think of a visit to the dentist.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:Drowned, set in the idyllic countryside during a short-lived Swedish summer, gets under one’s skin from the first page, creating an atmosphere of foreboding in which even the perfume of freshly picked vegetables roasting in the kitchen becomes ominous.

On the surface, the story couldn’t be simpler. A single young woman visits her older sister, who is married to a writer as charismatic as he is violent. As the young woman falls under her brother-in-law’s spell, the plot unfolds in a series of precisely rendered turns. Meanwhile the reader, anticipating the worst, hopes against hope that disaster can be averted.

More than a mere thriller, this debut novel delves deep into the feminine soul and at the same time exposes the continuing oppression of women in Sweden’s supposedly enlightened society. Mixing hothouse sensuality with ice-cold fear on every page, Drowned heralds the emergence of a major new talent on the international scene.

Comments: In her debut novel, Drowned, Swedish author Therese Bowman offers something a little different from the crime fiction that her compatriots have been producing with such success for the last few years; it’s never entirely clear whether this story involves a crime at all. However, the sense of chilly dread that suffuses this brief (just over 200 pages), psychologically intense novel approaches thriller levels in places.

Marina is a graduate student visiting her sister Stella and Stella’s partner, Gabriel, in a small town during an unusually hot, sultry Swedish summer. She’s supposed to be working on an art-history assignment, but isn’t getting much done; Gabriel, a novelist, is similarly struggling with his current work-in-progress. Stuck at the house together while Stella is at work at the town parks department, something seems to be happening between them, but they don’t speak about it. There seem to be some things Stella won’t speak about either, and the secrets weigh as heavily on the characters as the late-summer humidity. Marina’s summer visit ends; the novel picks up several months later when she returns, after Stella has disappeared. In the short days of a cold, wet late autumn, Marina tries to sort out what happened to her sister…and what is still happening between her and Gabriel.

Drowned puts both its protagonist and its reader on edge almost from the beginning and never really allows either to become settled or comfortable. It’s an effective, suspenseful psychological mystery that will add some provocative chills to the summer-reading list.

Rating: 3.75/5

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