Saturday, August 08, 2009
Johan Theorin, The Darkest Room
In The Darkest Room, Swedish crime writer Johan Theorin skillfully brings together several disparate elements: a series of ghost stories, a thriller, a mystery, and a series of historical vignettes about the various ways to die in a cold, unforgiving environment. Like Theorin’s first novel, Echoes from the Dead, In the Darkest Room (whose original Swedish title is Nattfåk, meaning “night blizzard”) is set on the Swedish island of Öland, in the Baltic sea, south of Gotland. The first story evoked the towns and the prarie-like Alvar, and the second evokes the houses and lighthouses along the eastern coast of the island. The characters are as disparate as the plotlines: a young Stockholm family moving into an old lighthouse-keeper’s manor house with a plan to renovate it; a B&E crew made up of pair of meth-head, violent brothers and a local guy who’s only in it as a cure for boredom; a rookie cop and an amateur detective who lives in an old-folks home (that last character is a holdover from the first novel, and his appearance is telegraphed by an early encounter between the thieves and a ship-in-a-bottle). There are also the ghosts of sailors lost at sea, a young wife, a junkie sister, and various previous residents of the manor house—we meet the ghosts in a running narrative that turns out to be a confessional of sorts, as well as in stories from island residents, spooky presences encountered by various characters, the thieving brothers’ Ouija Board, and physical evidence in the house and its barn. Echoes from the Dead updated folktale motifs, and In the Darkest Room does the same (especially with one overarching metaphor related to the English title that becomes actualized in the second half of the book), but emphasizes both the unwilling dead and the weight of history. The novel is interesting from the beginning, naturalistic but spooky as well as well written, but as the threads of the tale begin to converge, along with the Christmas blizzard of the original Swedish title, the pace picks up to that of a thriller (and the translator, Marlaine Delargy, deserves a lot of credit for maintaining that pace in lucid English)—you’ll find yourself ripping through the almost 400 pages. But the climax is reached more in terms of character than violence (though there is violence), as in almost the style of Elmore Leonard rather than a standard thriller-writer’s climactic violence. But what the novel leaves the reader with (even after a coda-like ending that brings the book back toward the mystery genre) is a sense of the continuity of human dwelling and dying in a fully realized, particular place. And where a number of Scandinavian novels have dealt with the new immigtion problems, Theorin looks toward a different kind of “intruder” into the calm, uniform surface of Swedish life: the continuing presence of those who are gone but not quite forgotten. I’m pasting in three covers again, U.S., U.K., and Sweden, two of which offer (naturally enough) takes on the storm-and-lighthouse motif and one, the U.S., a scene of snow, forest, and glowing redness of dawn or dusk in the far north (another, less obvious motif in the book). Graphically, I like the Swedish and U.S. ones better than the U.K. one, which also emphasizes the sea a bit more than the others.