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3.7 out of 5 stars
3.7 out of 5 stars
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on 2 August 2005
This is an extraordinarily complex and ingeniously plotted novel, and to categorise it as a thriller or a crime novel is only to touch the surface of the different aspects of its complexity.
'Blackwater' begins from the point of view a woman called Annie who, awoken by her daughter Mia, who is in her early twenties, returning home in the middle of the night, convinces herself the man with her daughter is the same man she saw eighteen years previously and whom she has always believed to be guilty of the brutal stabbing of two tourists sleeping in a tent. Annie herself had been the first person to discover the bodies of the tourists, on Midsummer Evening, when arriving with Mia, then a little girl, to pitch in her lot with a commune in the desolate north of Scandinavia.
The novel then slowly recreates the disturbing circumstances of the murder through a long and very complex combination of flashbacks seen from different points of view, before returning, at the opening of Part II, to its starting-point and the subsquent revival of interest in a double murder whose motives had never originally been explained (and a murderer who had never been caught).
The plot itself is watertight, but the postmodernist narrative techniques deployed are complex, and sometimes deliberately misleading: information is crucially withheld in order to develop and slowly increase an atmosphere of suspense which gradually becomes overwhelming.
Yet there is much more than suspense and unsolved mystery here. The characters are complex, and all of them have something to hide, or at the very least shady areas of their pasts which they are unwilling to contemplate. The commune itself is something of a failure, and the projected relationship there between Annie and Dan, the boyfriend who, ominously, fails to meet here on her arrival, is the fruit of one of many
misunderstandings in the story. And the wilderness itself functions like a late twentieth-century equivalent of those ominous hostile landscapes in the novels of Thomas Hardy.
Yes, I can sympathise with certain reviewers' frustration: it is a novel which the reader is at certain points tempted to give up. But this is because Kerstin Ekman cleverly allows the reader to be affected by the futility and monotony which characterise many of the characters' lives. But take my word for it: although the first part is (deliberately) slow-moving and ponderous, this is because it is like a spring being slowly wound up in preparation for the revelations in store in the second part.
And the translation, by the late Joan Tate, is of impeccable quality and, presumably, a quite monumental labour of love. This is one of those very rare novels where mystery and narrative mastery meet, and as such is very highly recommended to all those who end up feeling slightly unsatisfied when they get to the end of all those more run-of-the-mill whodunnits.
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on 4 January 2011
I am not going to add much to the previous positive reviews here, but it grieves me that this extraordinary novel has been so misunderstood on this and other review sites, so I'm marking my five stars against this title. Blackwater is absolutely NOT a conventional plot-driven action thriller or police procedural. This novel is a profound study of individual psychology and and the impact of insular rural life in a harsh but very beautiful sub-arctic region. It reflects on the intellectual, political and social preoccupations of Sweden in the early 1970s through the characters affected by the murders of two campers. But if that sounds dry, I must say Ekman achieves this with a compelling, beautifully written narrative, and with enormous humanity. It is the final act of humanity in the book that redeems all the quiet tragedy that has gone before, and the redemption is offered by the only two characters who have the real right to give it. A profound work that moved me and has kept me thinking.
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on 13 August 2000
I am amazed that nobody else has yet written a review of this book. It is one of the most terrifying and literate thrillers I have read.
The story is set in the far northern forests of Sweden and centres on a brutal murder, in the late 1960s, of two foreign tourists. Around this crime, Ekman weaves a tale involving the brutalities of rural life, the commune-based radicalism that was so fashionable in Scandinavia at that time, environmental destruction and - most interestingly - a disturbing racism that seems to lurk within Swedish society.
Kerstin Ekman has clearly spent a long time honing the skills of plotting,but the book delivers much more: powerful ideas about education, memory and politics, and a profound, passionate evocation of nature.
Kerstin Ekman is one of the few contemporary Swedish writers to have become known internationally. I came to Blackwater having read The Forest of Hours, a magnificent historical novel that others have reviewed for Amazon. And I came to that book by chance. She is, for me, a wonderful discovery. We need more of her books in English.
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on 15 May 2010
This isn't a book for the reader who wants a superficially thrilling mystery novel with a death on every page, full of broken glass and violence. The violence is contained and never either repellingly graphic or superfluous. The novel proceeds slowly and often confusingly. Although it is slow at times I was totally engaged and accepted Ekman's pace and intelligence. It is a marvelous book, way beyond the mystery genre. The environment, a people on the verge of extinction (the Sami), small-townspeople people on the edge of sanity, troubled families, people in love, people who live in small towns on the edge of society, adolescent longing, mother-love, are wrapped like a tissue of humanity around a brutal, incomprehensible murder.
It is as difficult to synopsize the novel as it would be reduce Moby Dick to a fishing story. The first reviewer on the Amazon site did a plot summary as well as could be done. The book is totally engrossing and, at the end, beautifully resolved. I loved the book. For the serious reader it is compelling and richly rewarding.
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on 5 June 2004
I would agree that "Blackwater" is very slow, painfully slow in the first half and certainly not everyones cup of tea. I admit that I very nearly gave up on it, but I am so glad I did not ! The second half moves along a lot faster and so much more is explained. The characters and plot develop superbly.
This is not the easiest book to read, and I found the Swedish charcters and place names very hard to get to grips with. The plot is complex and interwoven, jumping from character to character and across time.
The novel is also very dark and shows a different side to Swedish life, reminiscent more of an American backwoods lifestyle. The main characters are also fascinating especially one who you think could be a double murderer but ends up in a way as a sort of hero !
Ekman brings different threads and themes together superbly, from the despair of the village doctor, the awkward shyness and moodiness of a teenage boy, the darker thoughts of a teacher turned hippy and the even darker mind of a backwoods loner.
All in all this is a fantastic book. So stick with it, it is well worth it.
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on 7 November 2012
This isn't a book, it's a landscape. This book will stay with you forever. The tone, colours, gorgeous setting, heavy atmosphere... all unforgettable. The characterisation is equally sharp. Very few of the current crop of Scandi thrillers come anywhere near Ekman's classic. Ys, it is extremely dark, but the nature is part of the characters' inner landscape. That's what's so great. This is total writing. Masterpiece.
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on 22 April 2011
I rate this book highly for reasons which have already been given by many other reviewers. I write this to address the very negative views expressed by some reviewers. Simply put, I think they have been sold a pup.

If you are, as I often am, looking for a straight-forward, shoot-from-the-hip who-dun-it, thriller, crime novel you look under the corresponding labels and you have a reasonable expectation to find something suitable. Ekman is not a crime writer. You might as well categorise Graham Greene, Ian McEwan, or A.L. Kennedy as crime writers. They have all written about crime but the resulting novels are not what is ordinarily considered as "crime novels".

A taxonomic problem, in other words.
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on 21 March 2015
Two bodies are stumbled upon near a river by a young woman looking for the site of a hippy commune. Quite a good set up. The area is populated by plenty of suspects: brutish farmboys, pagan followers, drop-outs, morose villagers etc. But after the set-up everything goes downhill.
As other reviewers have said this is not a genre crime novel at all. Nothing wrong with that - except that it is marketed as such. I found the book to be one of the most sprawling, meandering and tedious-detail-filled books I can remember and I couldn't get through to the end. Nothing is left out. If we go into room, the floor is described, the rugs, the furniture, the walls, the pictures on the walls - although these have no bearing on the progress of the novel. Same with self-obsessed people's interminable thoughts and recollections of their grim past lives. The author doesn't give the reader credit for any imagination.
The plot movement soon drains away and we are left in a swamp of angst-ridden characters who vie with each other to be the most unpleasant and damaged. None of them is sympathetic in the least. Even the sex in the book is bleak and joyless. The characters are referred to as "he" or "she" - often without being named, so you have to guess for a good time who is being described. No pace. No drive forward. No economy at all. Repetitive. Stodgy. Infuriating.
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Way back before the present-day influx of Scandinavian thrillers and procedurals, in 1978, I came across this novel by Kerstin Ekman. It was many years before I read a better thriller. Not strictly just a thriller, however; yes it concerns a (double) murder, and yes we don’t find out until the end who killed a young couple, who went to sleep in their tent on Midsummer Eve and never woke up, but the story is not just about them and their deaths, it’s about a small village in the mountains and the people who live there.

The atmosphere of the novel is cleverly created to bring a sense of foreboding and threat. It is densely written and covers both those who escape from the claustrophobic air of the village and what they escape to, and what happens to expose the murderer in their midst. The characters include Annie Raft and her daughter, who have joined the commune situated at a high point on the horizon where the river cascades down the mountain, the Brandenburg family, their five sons, including a half-brother Johan, Birger Torbjornsson, the district doctor, the district chief of police Ake Vemdal, and a shifting and casual number of inhabitants of the Starhill Commune.

The characterisation is very good indeed, psychologically complex and deftly handled. There is an edge of mysticism to this story, harking forwards to her novel 'The Forest of Hours', but this is not developed in a way that interferes with the story. It is densely written, delicately woven into plot strands that keep you reading. This book won both the Swedish Crime Academy prize and the Nordic Council’s Literary prize, which gives a good idea of how elegantly it is poised between literature and crime. It’s a slow book, but it has to be to develop the richness of the narratives. Brilliantly done, this is something very special.
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on 1 March 2004
Wow, I totally disagree with just about everything in the previous review! It's true that this isn't a fast paced book at all, but it's only boring if you find the human heart boring. It's more an autopsy of ordinary lives in all their dispair and confusion than a classic murder mystery. (Ops, that last sentence DOES look like a load of pretentious tripe, but that's not poor Kerstin Ekman's fault, that's just pretentious old me.) Maybe not a barrel of laughs, exactly, but there is something very wry and humane about Ekman's observations that makes it comforting in the way only authentic things can be. I mean, this doesn't offer a rose-tinted view of the world, but it doesn't paint it all in black either. Contrast this very pragmatic view of human beings with Ekman's a mystical fascination with nature and the result is just excellent. Honestly, read the first chapters and I'm sure you'll agree...
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