Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
Like many books recently published by Other Press—particularly Bonnie Nadzam’s Lamb, Stephanie Vaughn’s Sweet Talk, and Cristina Comencini’s When the Night—Therese Bohman’s Drowned is a flawless story written in razor sharp prose, and is extremely hard to put down. The novel’s first person narrator is Marina, a twenty year old art history student who leaves her home in Stockholm to visit her sister Stella, who has moved to the Swedish countryside with a man fifteen years her senior named Gabriel. Drowned seems simple, but like a Hitchcock film, there’s something disturbing underneath the simplicity.
Stella is older than Marina, slimmer, more beautiful, and the model child. Gabriel is a writer, “at least forty-five,” and owns a house on land in the midst of endless fields. There is a lake within walking distance, and the sea is near enough to smell. Gabriel and Stella have a garden, with rows of vegetables and fruit trees, just like Stella always wanted. Stella is a botanist who works for the nearby town as a public garden planner or developer. Her favorite flowers are orchids, which she grows in secret. She has been a straight arrow throughout her life, but suddenly she breaks up with her steady boyfriend and enters into this “illogical relationship” with an older, mysterious man.
It is summer, and it is hot. Insects buzz around the stagnant air, the setting full of sensuality. Everything has “a surreal sharpness,” and that’s the best way to describe Bohman’s writing style: a surreal sharpness. Everything is there, written in precise detail, yet it feels like she’s only letting the reader in on a quarter of what’s really going on.
And what is really going on? Marina is with a boyfriend she doesn’t really want to be with, or not be with; they are just together, in that loose, unserious way of many couples in their young twenties. Her boyfriend is vacationing in Spain, and, when Stella isn’t around, Gabriel looks at Marina in the way a man looks at a woman. Marina has a problem: because she takes everything so seriously, always having to be in control, she suspects that “perhaps there’s something wrong with my brain, like with murderers, psychopaths, a basic lack of empathy.” She thinks Gabriel is the opposite, in that everything is a game to him. His first book was called Ophelia, and he seems obsessed with the beautiful image of the drowned girl’s death; her hair spread out like a flower. He sporadically reveals his explosive temper to Marina, as well as his uncontrollable passion. He’s an artist, after all, and she’s studying art history, so she thinks she understands him, and they get along. He makes her feel safe.
Everything sounds fine. But Stella’s speech is curt, as if she’s hiding something—though it could just be the old sisterly rivalry, the old challenging the young, the young meeting the challenge. Then again, Stella has strange marks on her body. Marina soon has some on hers, too. The neighbors walk a long distance just to ask if everything is okay. Marina wants to leave the countryside, but doesn’t want to go back to Stockholm, with is “functionalist suburban pine trees.” Stella shares a secret with Marina, and then Marina and Gabriel become bound by secrets, putting the sister in between the couple. A threat seems to be lurking under the surface, but what can go wrong? After all, it’s Sweden in the summertime. To say more, would be saying too much.
Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy
Other Press, May 2012