Friday, April 10, 2009

Island of the Naked Women, by Inger Frimansson

The title of Inger Frimansson's 3rd novel to be published in English (translated from the Swedish by Laura Wideburg) suggests a soft-core porn movie until the narrative offers an explanation: Shame Island, where the farm family at the center of the story pastures its cattle, supposedly earned that name because in earlier times women accused of adultery were taken there, naked and with no food, and left to die. That explanation of the title suggests a feminist subtext for the story that never materializes (though there are various sorts of mistreatment of women, overt and subtle). What the reader does get is part psychological thriller (but without the neo-Gothic atmosphere of the earlier Good Night My Darling and its sequel, Shadow in the Water) and part tragedy. Island of the Naked Women does share a "world" with the earlier two novels: there is one character from those books who pops up here briefly. But most of the story takes place a bit further outside the city (the first two novels were suburban--just at the edge between the city and the country). This novel instead alternates between the genuinely rural (a farm, the closest a human group gets to the rhythms of nature) and the completely urban. We learn gradually, rather than all at once, that Titus is a literary writer who has recently published a succesful crime novel and is having difficulty coming up with a sequel. He has returned to the family farm to help out when his father has been injured in a fall. Titus hasn't lived on the farm since his Icelandic mother ran off with another man, taking Titus with her. The father's now-partner Sabina (in the past we would have said common-law wife) is about Titus's age has a learning-disabled adult son, Adam, with a talent for singing Elvis songs, a talent encouraged by a Hardy, a handyman with an attitude and a shady past. Ingelize, a former schoolmate of Titus's, offers him a part-time job working with horses, along with a cabin where he could write in solitude. Even at the start, the scenario suggests betrayal and tragedy. For better or worse, the Elvis angle is barely developed, though Adam does have several key roles in the story and the rotating point of view is occasionally occupied by him. The story builds slowly to the betrayal and to violence (which at first we do not know to be real or imagined), at which point Tobias returns to the city, to his writers' block, and to his girlfriend Marit, with whom he has an increasingly troubled relationship. The characters are not likable, particularly, but the reader has considerable sympathy for them, especially Sabina, Marit, and Ingelize (I couldnt' quite figure out why any of them would have much to do with Titus). The story presents effectively the ease with which murder may occur and the immense consequences that can ensue, both literal and psychological. Titus doesn't write psychological crime novels like Frimansson, he seems to be writing fairly conventional detective stories. In fact, he seems to be condescending to the genre that his own life is now embodying (which is a clever way of reinforcing the "reality" of the novel). The tragic tone of the novel builds slowly, with numerous excursions into farm life and basic bodily functions, toward a descent into the darker aspects of human emotion. The novel is modern in many ways, but also suggests the rural novels of Knut Hamsun and other European writers in the early to mid 20th century. Frimansson's palette has deepened and broadened with Island of the Lost Women, into the depths of the noir tradition.

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