This is a review I wrote for The Quarterly Conversation a few years ago. I’ve linked to it before, during a past Women In Translation months even, but now that the site is no longer — RIP QC! — I’ve revised and moved it permanently to Reader at Large. Bohman is one of my favorite writers. She doesn’t coddle her characters or give her heroines an easy time of it… and yet they thrive.
This past October I also reviewed Eventide, another Bohman novel with a flawed, interesting female protagonist. You can read that review here.
The Swedish writer Therese Bohman seems to have an affinity for aimless young women vulnerable to the attentions of older men. In two of her novels, Drowned and the newly translated The Other Woman, she channels the psyches of twenty-something University students engaged in liaisons with men already involved with other women.
The books share so much in common that they might be the same novel: both explore almost identical situations, share many of the same structural and plot devices, and the author’s and her translator’s, Marlaine Delargy, prose styles remain consistent from book to book. What differences exist are relatively superficial. Drowned and The Other Woman are conveyances for Bohman’s thoughts on feminism, sisterhood, and perhaps even the socio-economic status of women in modern society. Regardless of the ambiguous morality of her female characters’ decisions, Bohman’s treatment of them is inarguably sympathetic. Their affairs with men may be the impetus for coming-of-age journeys, but they do not represent a final destination.
Drowned is a psychological thriller—dark, gothic, and fraught with eroticized violence. In my opinion, it is technically the better, more innovative novel. A story about two sisters: Stella, the elder, lives in a beautiful “yellow wooden house” with a garden; she has the perfect job at the local parks and gardens department; her boyfriend, Gabriel, is devastatingly attractive and a successful novelist. He is also fifteen years her senior. Everything about their life together appears picture-perfect.
By contrast, Stella’s younger sister Marina is adrift and directionless. She attends university in Stockholm, is working on a thesis she’ll probably never finish, and is in a stalled relationship which she is too apathetic to end. Everything about her is nebulous and undefined.
A love triangle develops between the sisters and Gabriel. We are given the impression that rather than rivals, these two sisters, separated by a significant age gap, desire a closer relationship. (Indeed, this is why Marina is spending her summer holiday with the couple.) Stella remains completely unaware of the attraction between the two people she loves.
It gradually becomes apparent that something is not right about Gabriel. Microfractures appear on the surface of his and Stella’s relationship. He is prone to unexpected (and seemingly out of character) rages. He is sometimes fumbling, vulnerable, and haunted, only to act with calculated violence moments later. Readers are left unbalanced, asking questions and quickly turning the pages.
Bohman generates tension by allowing much of the action to take place between sentences. She focuses on meticulously rendered details: the seasons and environment through which the characters move play pivotal roles in her narrative. Inanimate objects like a bottle of nail polish, an angora sweater, a hothouse orchid, and a book of Pre-Raphaelite paintings are laden with symbolism. Each element has been considered and imbued with a menacing prescience.
The garden is in the process of decay. The sunflowers look like scarecrows now that they have gone over, their seed heads black and wet, their leaves straggling and shriveled. I pull on Stella’s Wellington boots that are in the back porch and take a walk around the garden, noticing the tomatoes that ripened but were never picked, their split skins exposing the dried flesh, rhubarb with leaves as big as umbrellas, the stalks so thick they are presumably inedible. They taste best before they get too big, as far as I remember, then they become bitter, woody. The pods of the sugar snap peas are swollen and lumpy, distorted, also too big for anyone but the worms to eat. Only the parsley is still green, glowing amid all the brown and gray, tiny drops of water have collected in its curly leaves. I break off a piece and push it in my mouth, it has the harsh taste of iron. A few sparse marigolds are still flowering stoically in the borders.
Bohman avoids the inherent clichés, elevating her plots above the stuff of Lifetime movies through acts of restraint. She creates rich and vivid scenes with only a few broad, carefully considered brushstrokes. Utilizing the concept of chiaroscuro, she fills these books with oppositions and dualities, both subtle and blatant.
A similar dynamic plays out in The Other Woman, which is a looser, much more casual production. It follows an arc readers are all too familiar with—a young cafeteria worker falls for a distinguished and married doctor, who she meets at the hospital where they both work. But that is where the familiar formula begins and ends.
The narrator of The Other Woman never reveals her name. Like Marina, she is a student, and the two young women are of an age. Unlike Marina, she is completely self-aware. Whereas Stella and Marina appear to come from an affluent family, this narrator makes it very clear that she has no such advantages. She works her menial job because she needs to support herself. She has only half-formed dreams of becoming a writer, and her early fantasies about Carl are pathetic in their yearnings. They center around his realizing she is special, that she doesn’t “belong there” among her coworkers. She is the young ingénue, the shop girl, Pygmalion archetype, whose seduction has as much to do with the trappings of class and status as it does with sexual desire. “I have always known there is something vulgar about me, something I cannot hide. . . . I have felt it all my life, even as a child: the aura around some of my classmates was different, more solid somehow.” When she talks about the difference between her classmates and herself, it transcends mere possessions and moves into the elusive realm of taste: “Raincoats and boots that weren’t the cheapest because their wearer would soon grow out of them, but were well made and practical, handed down from older siblings, yet they were not unfashionable because they had never been fashionable in the first place.” When she meets another student at a party, a girl named Alex, it is immediately apparent that her attraction to Alex and her life represents a parallel to her relationship with Carl.
The journey for these two young women is perhaps as much about identity as it is about sexual desire. Stella and Alex represent the women Bohman’s two narrators wish to become. The men are props in those lives. Carl, the less threatening of the two men, and the doctor in The Other Woman, comes across as entirely solid and dependable. But, while she is in love with him, his influence over the narrator is arguably less than Alex’s. Whereas Gabriel is without question the dominant personality over both Marina and Stella, yet it is Stella who dominates Marina’s thoughts.
This theme of feminism and a female confederacy is more present in The Other Woman than in Drowned. It is dealt with directly as the former’s narrator spends several pages sorting through her feelings toward her fellow female students. “It feels like I will be brought up before a women’s tribunal to justify every decision I make, while at the same time I have no interest whatsoever in the approval of other women. I sometimes wonder if I’m a misogynist, but I’ve never heard of a female misogynist, and in any case I don’t really hate women, I just find it difficult to empathize with them.” These passages about how young women tend to align themselves for or against an obscure, collective feminist “we” are honest, depicting how blurry such boundaries can be. Carl and Gabriel, are using these young women to re-create a former sexual partner or fantasy. But the girls are using them in return, fulfilling an altogether different fantasy. Bohman is much more forgiving of the girls.
Drowned ‘s dependence on the natural world juxtaposes with The Other Woman‘s emphasis on humid, close (often cozy) lit interiors, which alternate with the cold, windy expanse of the harbor where the narrator walks late at night. Bohman uses the transitions from interiors to exteriors to mirror the conflicts within her protagonists’ psyches.
The dishwasher down in the main kitchen is a cubist whale made of aluminum, lying on its belly with its mouth wide open, filtering dishes and containers through a series of vibrating rubber strips, stroking them into position before it slowly swallows them, washing and rinsing deep down in its belly, then delivering them on the other side, sparkling and red hot. Sometimes it feels like my friend, or at least my pet. I am its caregiver, I clean it and take care of it when it has done its work for the day, when the last containers have passed through it and been blown dry and the room is like a warm, damp cave, where the air exhaled by the dishwasher has misted up the huge windows against the December darkness outside.
Therese Bohman strikes the right balance between lavish prose and simple storytelling—allowing her books to be both beautiful literary objects and vehicles which engage readers through larger ideas. Neither Marina nor the titular other woman walks away innocent from their encounters. Both, in a sense, get out of their affairs exactly what they most desired—though what that is may not be what they believed it to be going in. As a society we are quick to cast judgment, particularly on women. And Bohman is provoking us into casting those judgments—perhaps in order to show us how hypocritical and ultimately unrealistic they are.
Title: Drowned Author: Therese Bohman Translator: Marlaine Delargy Publisher: Other Press (New York, 2012) ISBN: 978 1 59051 524 2
Title: The Other Woman Author: Therese Bohman Publisher: Marlaine Delargy ISBN: 978 1 59051 743 7
Currently Reading: Igifu by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump and Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Grace Frick & the author.