Therese Bohman’s Drowned, which I read in Marlaine Delargy’s translation of the Swedish original Den drunknade, is a neatly constructed, smoothly translated psychological thriller with lots of twos: two sisters, two visits, and two sides of one man. Drowned is suspenseful, in a matter-of-fact way, so I took some leisurely walks on the treadmill because I didn’t want to stop reading. I’ll go light on details to avoid spoilers.
The main story is this: Marina, an art history student who lives in Stockholm, goes to Skåne to visit her sister Stella, a plant specialist who plans city gardens and lives with a writer, an older man named Gabriel. They live in an old house that Gabriel inherited from his grandmother, along with a cat named Nils. The weather is hot:
It is different now, sultry and oppressive, as if a thunderstorm is coming… My head feels fragile, as if a headache is just coming to life deep inside and will soon make its presence felt, sending out crackling impulses of pain that will thud against my forehead and my temples, as if I were inside a thunder ball.
Oppressive heat rarely improves moods and Bohman offers up some tense situations that generate suspicions. She also gives Stella lots of plants to care for, at home and at work, and uses them symbolically, even creating a romantic sense of danger when Marina discovers aphids on Stella’s nasturtiums. The sap-sucking aphids appear on the page after the horrible headache:
When I look closer I can see that the undersides of the leaves are covered in aphids, great black clumps of them, they are on the stems bearing the flower heads too, covering them completely so that the stems look thick and black, uneven. The more I look, the more aphids I see.
Marina’s second trip comes in the fall: it’s now cold in Skåne but lots more than the weather has changed. My memorable plant in the cold part of the book was an orchid, perhaps because of the orchid’s sensitivity to temperatures. Or perhaps because I’ve found something vaguely menacing about orchids since I met Harold in Twin Peaks.
Nothing in Drowned appears to be particularly complex and most of its plot turns are predictable in a “Don’t open that door!” kind of way. But it’s a smart book and Bohman uses her oppositions—Stella/Marina as star/water, hot/cold, winter/summer, and so on—in ways that help keep the story taut. Limited house space and characters enable Bohman to develop characters, along with their relationships, weaknesses, and fears, with tremendous efficiency. Delargy’s translation flows nicely and creates an appropriate voice for Marina’s age and moods. Everything works here. As for the title, let’s just say everybody’s drowning in some problem or other… and that John Everett Millais’s lushly creepy painting Ophelia is a subtext in the novel.
Disclosures: Other Press gave me a copy of Drowned at BookExpo America; I enjoyed speaking with Other about translated fiction.
Up Next: Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray, which I also enjoyed very much.
Image Credit: John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, via Wikipedia.