Where to start with Drowned? Well, I should say upfront that it’s a psychological novella by the Swedish editor and literary critic, Therese Bohman. Drowned is a little different to the types of books I typically choose, but a reading friend recommended it and I was keen to give it a shot.
The story is divided into two parts, and the first section opens with Marina, who narrates the story, arriving in Skåne (in the Swedish countryside) to visit her older sister, Stella. The two sisters have not seen one another in some time, and Stella now lives with Gabriel, a relatively famous novelist in his mid-forties. Gabriel is a good fifteen years older than Stella, an age difference that appears to have caused the girls’ parents some concern.
The differences between the two sisters are evident from the opening pages of this novella. In the blistering heat of midsummer, Marina arrives by train feeling listless, grubby and headachy from the journey, whereas Stella appears cool and elegant. Marina seems ambivalent about the demise of her relationship with boyfriend, Peter (who has gone to Spain with friends), and shows little enthusiasm for her studies at Stockholm. By contrast, Stella invests much energy in her role as a landscape planner; she is a keen gardener, both at home and at work where she heads up the planning section of the council and parks department.
Gabriel works from home in the couple’s somewhat isolated idyllic cottage surrounded by a garden bursting with plants and flowers, and these images form one of the key themes within the book. Following the success of his first novel, Ophelia (another reference point), Gabriel is frustrated by the process of re-writing his second. Marina read Ophelia some years ago in high school, and while her memories of the book are somewhat vague, she can recall a ‘cloying sense of love bordering on obsession’ so well written it was almost as if she had experienced it herself.
In the heady and intense summer heat, it’s not long before a precarious attraction develops between Marina and Gabriel. In this early scene, Gabriel has been painting the henhouse in the garden and on seeing Marina, he realises there is a smear of paint on his forehead:
I move a step closer and run my thumb gently over the mark on his forehead. He looks at me, no longer smiling. There is a strong smell of paint, as if the hot, still air is intensifying the smell, making it linger. The lock of hair falls into his eyes again, and I gently push it aside to get at the paint. I can feel his breath against my cheek, he is close now, bending his head toward me so that I can reach. His forehead is brown from the sun, his whole face, his arms, he is wearing a faded black T-shirt and he smells wonderful, warm.
“Has it gone?”
I hold up my hand to show him, red paint on my thumb and forefinger, and he suddenly grabs hold of my wrist, twists my hand around, and looks at my fingers. It is a rapid movement, decisive, his grip is hard, just like when I met him on that first evening, the firm handshake. Perhaps he isn’t aware of how strong he is.
“Pretty nail polish,” he says.
I did my nails last night, a cool pink, shimmering like mother-of-pearl in the sunlight.
“Thanks,” I say quietly.
My cheeks flush red. (Other Press, pg. 33)
There is a vague sense of unease in the relationships between each of the three main characters. Relations between the two sisters feel a little strained, and I’ve already touched upon Marina and Gabriel. As for Gabriel and Stella, at times the writer is loving and attentive towards his partner, but on other occasions he wonders what he’s supposed to do to make her happy. Moreover, Stella hints to her sister that she finds Gabriel somewhat unstable and difficult to live with.
Bohman brings a claustrophobic, stifling atmosphere to this first section of Drowned. Aromas pervade the air, and the heady, oppressive, almost fecund mood is augmented by descriptions of plants and flowers as they creep and spread into every available space:
There is a vase of sweet peas on the table now, spreading a perfume that seems to grow more intense as the day goes on. They clamber up a length of chicken wire in the kitchen garden, getting entangled in one another and in the wire, winding their tendrils like lianas around everything they can reach, greedily, clinging on tightly, some are impossible to pull free when you’re picking them. (pg. 72)
The second section of the book moves forward to November as Marina returns once again to the house in Skåne. The torrid heat has long gone, but this part of the story remains atmospheric as a result of a plunge in temperature:
This is late fall, raw and rainy. I can no longer smell the rotting leaves, it is no longer possible to tell that it was once summer. The entire landscape is in a state of torpor, it has resigned itself, let go. No fall colours, only brown and gray, no leaves left on the trees, they are lying on the ground now, sodden in the puddles, crushed, a mush of fallen leaves covering the lawn. (pg 111)
I enjoyed this psychological novella about how secrets, obsessions and guilt can bind people together. Bohman explores the darker aspects of our relationships, and she does so in a way that held my interest throughout. There are a few themes I would have liked to discuss further in this review, but it’s very difficult to do so without disclosing key elements of the plot. Drowned is an unsettling read, and in some ways it reminds me a little of Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room (tr. by Deborah Dawkin), certainly in terms of the novella’s somewhat claustrophobic and unnerving atmosphere – while Drowned maintains an air of ambiguity, The Blue Room is a more slippery read and harder to pin down.
I’ll wrap up with one final point. Occasionally during the narrative, Marina reflects on memories of her relationship with Stella when they were children, and I found myself looking for hints and clues from the past. I’ll leave you with a quote from one of these sections:
I think about when I was little, when it was winter and Stella and I were waiting in the backseat of the car for Mom and Dad, who had gone off to do some shopping or something, and the windows got all misted up on the inside and we drew flowers and animals and hearts, and Stella wrote the names of the boys she was in love with. Dad used to tell us to try not to breathe until he had closed the car door and we would laugh and try, timing each other to see how long we could hold our breath, Stella always won. (pg. 136)
I read this book to link in with Biblibio’s focus on Women in Translation (#WITMonth), which is running throughout August.
Drowned is published by Other Press. Source: personal copy.