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A very different kind of thriller
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.