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.
I don’t often include the reviewy parts of publisher’s blurbs, but for this book, go back and read it. Now, I’m not sure how much say authors get in what goes into their blurbs. I would kind of hope that they would at least get to approve them, but that might be my rose colored glasses speaking. Regardless, this book is sold as an exposé of “the continuing oppression of women in Sweden’s supposedly enlightened society.” Sure, I’ll grant you that the domestic violence aspects of the book are disturbing, but domestic abuse happens (much as I wish that weren’t a sentence I could truthfully write). Do people really assume that Sweden is such an idyllic society that there’s no oppression or prejudice or violence? Every country has domestic violence, some significantly worse than others (I’m looking at you honor killings). I really bothered me that someone felt the need to call this an exposé, because it actually sells the book short.
This book is more than your average domestic dispute. This is not an innocent woman who walked into a shitty situation and came out on the other end bruised and battered. This is more complex that that because the female character walks into her sister’s abusive situation and craves it. I’m not here to judge another woman’s preferences on how what happens in the bedroom, in fact, I fall firmly in the camp of do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else against their will. However, it struck me as straight up bizarre to take a vacation to her sister’s house only to immediately fall for her husband. Though I suppose that she did more than simply fall in love with her sister’s husband, she seems to fall in love with married life and the comfortable way that two people who’ve lived together for a long time move around each other. I can understand looking at someone else’s situation, seeing the good, and wanting to find the same in your life. It’s the physical replacement of that person in their life that creeps me out on every level, which could have been the author’s intent, but really reduced my ability to enjoy the story.
However, the one thing, the author did magnificently was use the subtle violence of Gabriel to build suspense. She then combined this with the apparently awful weather of Sweden to create an environment felt oppressive and threatening. (Keep in mind that I’m using the word oppressive there in that the weather felt oppressive, not necessarily in any other way.) I loved her use of the senses to really bring the story to life, whether it be the cloying scent of flowers or the ominous ticking of the clock in the hallway, it was done superbly.
In the end, the story is a richly woven tale, but the subject matter is of the sort that is perhaps not for everyone. If you find the blurb to be off putting, you might take that to be a hint.
3.5 ink bottles.
Character Believability: 3 Buffys
Character Investibility: 2.5 Doctors
Pacing/Tension/Urgency: 4 Dresdens
Worldbuilding: 4 Snyders
Language: 4 Feegles
Mystery: 2 Sherlocks