Stella lives in Skåne, a small town in rural Sweden, with her boyfriend Gabriel.
Gabriel is devastatingly attractive, a successful novelist and 15+ years Stella’s senior.
Marina is Stella’s younger sister. She attends University in Stockholm and is caught in a stalled relationship.
Everything about Stella’s life appears to be organized and picture perfect – she and Gabriel live in a beautiful “yellow wooden house” with a garden; she has the perfect job at the local parks and gardens department; the perfectly attentive boyfriend. (Who also happens to be an amazing cook and helps with the housework, thank you very much).
“Trifolium pratense,” Stella murmurs as she adjusts a drooping flower head.
“Bloody know-it-all.” Gabriel smiles, his voice kind, as if he’s proud of her really. Stella knows the Latin names of all the plants, sometimes she doesn’t even seem to be aware that she’s saying them.
Marina by contrast is adrift and directionless. Everything about her is nebulous… undefined. She and Stella, we’re told, are nothing alike.
Over the sweltering hot Summer holiday a dark love triangle develops between these three. Marina narrates as events take shape. And while this may sound like a fairly typical story of betrayal between sisters, it’s anything but. Stella and Marina have a strong bond, which shows in their interactions. Several times Marina is reminded of happy memories from their shared childhood. At no point does the reader detect a rivalry. Making what happens all the more disturbing. Drowned is a psychological thriller pulled taught by sexual tension.
Therese Bohman throws a net of gorgeous prose over her readers – erotic and oppressively sensual. Early on it becomes apparent that something is not right about Gabriel. Delicate cracks appear on the surface of his and Stella’s relationship. He is prone to unexpected (and out of character) rages. At one point he seems fumbling, unsure and haunted. A few pages later a controlled violence surfaces. Bohman keeps her readers unbalanced, asking questions and quickly turning the pages. Even after reading the chilling conclusion it’s difficult not to want more.
The novel is divided into two parts. The first part takes place in Summer, the second during a brutally cold Swedish Fall. Attention is lavished on meticulously rendered details. The seasons and landscape are pivotal characters in this stringently constructed narrative. Inanimate objects like a bottle of nail polish lacquer, an angora sweater, a hothouse orchid and a book of Pre-Raphaelite paintings are laden with symbolism. Each element has obviously been carefully considered. Everything is imbued by Bohman with a menacing prescience.
It is with a mixture of fear and pleasure that I close my eyes and sink beneath the surface of the water. I have the same strong feeling now, that I don’t belong in the water, but I think that perhaps it can be changed, perhaps I can become someone else. Perhaps it’s already happening. Even though the water is warm, almost too warm, it feels cool against my face. I think about Gabriel’s kiss, his firm hand behind my head, on the back of my neck. When I open my eyes underwater my hands look white in the yellowness, my nail polish looks orange, it looks grubby, dirty. I lie on my back instead, feeling my hair float out across the water around my face. A few black alder cones are bobbing on the surface of the water a short distance away, and a dragonfly darts just above, its movements jerky.
Drowned is a good example of why I read translated lit. It is the rare thriller that wasn’t written with a film adaptation in mind. There’s nothing cookie cutter or trite about the plot – and the writing is exceptional.
Bohman’s prose contains a strange poetry. Her descriptions of sex are understated, and at the same time threaded with real violence that goes far beyond the caricatured eroticism of novels like Fifty Shades of Grey. Her translator, Marlene Delargy, does an excellent job of interpreting Marina’s voice. She captures the contradictions in Gabriel’s character and clarifies the motivations behind Stella’s decisions. All of which I believe could have been too easily lost in the translation (cultural as well as linguistic) into English. Drowned is a complicated, intense and haunting narrative. It is among the best of debut novels I’ve encountered this year.
Publisher: Other Press, New York (2012)
ISBN: 978 159051524 2