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Drowned by Therese Bohman

First published in Swedish in 2010; published in translation by Other Press on May 22, 2012 

I'm amazed to find a work of Scandinavian fiction in which the characters aren't endlessly complaining about how depressed they become during the long, frigid winters. In the first half of Drowned, the characters complain about how depressed they have become during the unusually hot summer. Part Two takes place in the fall and the characters complain that the rain and rotting leaves have created "a state of torpor." It seems that an unremitting feeling of depression is a consistent feature of Scandinavian fiction, no matter what the season might be.

Marina, an art history student in Stockholm, takes a train to the country to visit her sister Stella, who is living with an older man, a novelist named Gabriel. Unsurprisingly, something develops between Marina and Gabriel. Much of the story (written in the first person from Marina's perspective) takes place inside Marina's head as she ponders the meaning behind the brief kiss Gabriel gave her, her life-long jealousy and resentment of Stella, and her relationship with her absent boyfriend. One external event becomes significant: a burn mark on Stella's inner thigh that she can't adequately explain.

Things have changed by November, including Marina's relationship with Gabriel, when the novel's second half opens with Marina's return to the country. I won't reveal the plot-altering event that leads to the second visit for the sake of not spoiling it, although it is something the reader will probably anticipate long before it happens. Mild tension develops as the reader wonders how that event came to pass.

Some of its promotional blurbs describe Drowned as a thriller. Readers who come to the novel expecting it to thrill are likely to be disappointed. Nothing mysterious -- or even eventful -- happens until the story's last quarter. All of the action (and there isn't much) is crowded into the final pages. Even then, the story is more strange than suspenseful. The ending leaves many questions unanswered, and while that isn't always a bad thing, in this case I think too much is left open. The story seems incomplete.

Drowned is not for readers who only enjoy plot-driven, energetic novels. The tone is hushed, the pace is languid, and the content is based on thought rather than action. Therese Bohman's focus is on the creation of character rather than the tension that usually defines a thriller. Of course, the character Bohman develops is Marina, so when Gabriel, late in the novel, becomes more significant to the plot, it seems that we're meeting him for the first time. Gabriel's actions seem out of character but only because he was such a hollow character for most of the novel. If Bohman intended to create a sense of foreboding (and I think she did), she waited too long to do it.

Bohman has a nice eye for descriptive detail but she doesn't go overboard. Although she often seems on the verge of writing run-on sentences and is addicted to comma splices -- a writing style I generally disfavor -- Bohman makes it work. The sentences hurry forward, creating the illusion of urgency even when nothing much is happening. References to art and poetry pop up with some frequency; at least some of those have an allegorical relationship to Bohman's story. All of that kept me reading but, in the end, it isn't enough to make the novel succeed. Although there are many aspects of Drowned that I appreciated, it ultimately left me frustrated, in a state of torpor.


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