Something Old, Something New: Two Novels by Therese Bohman (a #WITMonth post)

The weekend before last an Indie Book Flea was held outside of the Brooklyn Public Library.  I was there with Lori from TNBBC because, let’s be honest, we’re geeks who live for that kind of thing.  There was a bunch of great publishers and chapbook presses there and I ended up buying from quite a few of them – Seven Stories, One Story, Ugly Duckling Presse, Double Cross Press – all of whom I plan to talk about in the weeks after WITMonth (aka – Women In Translation Month). But right now I want to talk about some really exciting news I heard at the Other Press table.

The Swedish author Therese Bohman, whose novel Drowned I reviewed in 2012 and which remains on my favorite-books-of-all-time shelf, has a new novel coming out in English in February, 2016.  The title is The Other Woman. Marlaine Delargy is again translating. Below is the description from the Penguin Random House website (Other Press is an imprint) –

From the author of Drowned, a passionate psychological drama where questions of power and sexuality are brought to a head.

She works at Norrköping Hospital, at the very bottom of the hierarchy: in the cafeteria, below the doctors, the nurses, and the nursing assistants. But she dreams of one day becoming a writer, of moving away and reinventing herself.

Carl Malmberg, an older, married doctor at the hospital, catches her eye. She begins an intense affair with him, though struggling with the knowledge that he may never be hers. At the same time, she realizes that their attraction to each other is governed by their differences in social status. As her doubts increase, the revelation of a secret no one could have predicted forces her to take her own destiny in hand.

The news had me picking up my copy of Drowned again and revisiting my old review from 2012. Everything I wrote then still holds true today (which is always a relief), though I did make a new connection I didn’t make back then.  Last year I read the Château d’Argol by Julien Gracq, tr. Louise Varése – an example of both Gothicism and German Romanticism.  Drowned, which also uses nature as symbolism and foreshadowing, shares many of the same techniques and themes – albeit written in a more straight forward prose style.

Click on the cover to read my review of Therese Bohman’s Drowned.



Drowned by Therese Bohman (translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy)

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 in a stalled romantic 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 is both 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 a sweltering hot Summer holiday a dark love triangle develops between these three.  Marina narrates as events unfold.  And while this may sound like yet another story of betrayal between sisters, it’s anything but.  Stella and Marina have a strong bond which shows in their interactions.  Several times Marina remembers happy memories from their shared childhood.  At no point does the reader detect a rivalry.  Making what is to come 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 other times he seems fumbling, unsure and haunted.  He shows a tendency for calculated violence.  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- Summer and a brutally cold Swedish Fall.  The seasons and landscape are pivotal characters in this stringently constructed narrative.  Attention is lavished on meticulously rendered details.  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 and 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.  The 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.  Elements which I believe might 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

“Men Who Hate Women”… maybe it loses something in translation? (Audio Book)

Swedish Film Poster for "Men Who Hate Women"

Mikael Blomkvist, the hero of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (originally titled Men Who Hate Women… catchy, huh?) is living a male mid-life crisis fantasy.  Despite being an indifferent father, he maintains a good relationship with both his ex-wife and daughter.  His lovers (we meet five during the course of the narrative) make no demands on his time, fidelity or affection.  He comes and goes as he pleases, responsible and committed to no one.  And the women in his life not only accept this… they like it.  James Bond, eat your heart out.

Why do I bring this up?  Because the target audience of this type of thriller/mystery novel is so obviously men… and men of a certain age.  I found it all a bit creepy, and mildly hilarious.  Creepy because Blomkvist is considered the ideal, when he’s not really that good of a guy.  He’s just better than what is given as the alternative.  Hilarious because of the women lining up to get into bed with him… to the point that he needs to turn them away because he’s double booked.   There’s a lot in this book that is, in fact, creepy and mildly hilarious.

The story begins with Blomkvist, a financial reporter & publisher by day, being convicted for libel.  The case has destroyed his credibility and brought into question the integrity of his magazine, Millenium, of which he is part owner.     In an attempt at damage control he has decided to lie low for a year and accepts an offer from Henrik Vanger (patriarch of the Vanger business empire) to write the Vanger family history.   At the same time he is to research the 40-year-old disappearance of Vanger’s favorite niece, Harriet.   Blomkvist enlists the help of Lisbeth Salinger, – a pierced, tattooed, socially awkward private investigator – and the two form a skewed Sherlock & Watson duo wh0 (apparently) will take us through the next two books of Larsson’s “Millenium trilogy”.

“Good morning, Froken Salander,” he greeted her cheerfully.  “It was a late night, I see.  Can I come in?”

Without waiting for an answer, he walked in, closing the door behind her.  He regarded with curiosity the pile of clothes on the hall floor and the rampart of bags filled with newspapers; then he peered through the bedroom door while Salander’s world started spinning in the wrong direction.  How? What? Who? Blomkvist looked at her bewilderment with amusement.

“I assumed you would not have had breakfast yet, so I brought some filled bagels with me.  I got one with roast beef, one with turkey and Dijon mustard, and one vegetarian with avocado, not knowing your preference.” He marched into her kitchen and started rinsing her coffeemaker. “Where do you keep coffee?” he said.  Salander stood in the hall as if frozen until she heard the water running out of the tap.  She took three quick strides.

“Stop! Stop at once!” She realised that she was shouting and lowered her voice. “Damn it all, you can’t come barging in here as if you own the place.  We don’t even know each other.”

Blomkvist paused, holding a jug and turned to look at her.

“Wrong! You know me better than almost anyone else does.  Isn’t that so?”

He turned his back on her and poured the water into the machine. Then he started opening her cupboards in search of coffee.  “Speaking of which, I know how you do it…”

There’s a lot of gratuitous sex in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo… some fairly benign, a lot of it pretty sick.  Sexual sadism is a major and reoccurring theme.   But that seems to have become a standard of this genre, and Larsson really has no choice than to give the readers what they seem to want.  Fortunately, he is a talented writer and once you get past the sexual violence the novel makes for an engrossing read.  Mikael Blomkvist is likeable (if a somewhat ridiculous) hero.  The mystery is well executed, with the kinds of twists and turns that will keep a reader on his toes.    In addition to the missing girl mystery, there is a corporate/legal thriller and a dynastic family saga replete with skeleton stuffed closets.  There’s also the character of Lisbeth Salander – enough of an enigma to be considered a plotline unto herself.

Stieg Larsson has created a complex novel which weaves together several strong plotlines.  The surprise is how well they all manage to fit together.  There is nothing bloated about this text.  Even in translation it’s obvious that the writing is good and the story carefully plotted.  The ending is completely unexpected… so it’s worth it to stay spoiler free on this one.  (I actually listened to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as an audio book.  Simon Vance gives a wonderful reading, though his Lisbeth inexplicably speaks with a British accent.  Nevertheless, he made  traffic into not a bad thing).

Men Who Hate Women was originally published in Sweden after the author’s death and became an international bestseller in 2005.  The next two novels have followed suit and I imagine I’ll eventually pick those up as well.  This is not a deep book, and there’s really not a whole lot of psychological complexity to be found in the characters.  But The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo travels well and makes a stronger showing than most novels of its ilk.   (Plus, let’s face it, how often do you have an opportunity to say the book you’re currently reading is by a Swedish author?)  As for the creepy factor I mentioned earlier – there’s a lot of juxtaposing of  normal sex scenes with scenes of sexual violence which I found a little disturbing, even if being “disturbing” was the author’s intention .  That said, I may be overly sensitive.  I’m confident that most readers of the genre will enjoy the book and continue on to the next in the series.