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by Therese Bohman and Marlaine Delargy, trans.
Other Press, May 2012
224 pages
ISBN: 1590515242

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One of the very best consequences of the current publishing passion for things Swedish is that it turns up books that I seriously doubt would have been translated in the ordinary course of things. DROWNED is a case in point - a brief account of the relationship between two sisters and the partner of the elder one - can hardly be described without making it seem slight and even trivial. Yet from the outset, it took hold of me and I read it through to the end barely without a pause.

The first part of the novel is set in Skåne, in a small Swedish town where Stella has gone to take a job as town landscaper and to live with her older partner, a well-known novelist named Gabriel. Her sister Marina, who is ten years younger, comes from Stockholm to visit. Marina is a desultory art history student whose current boyfriend is off in Spain with a group that doesn't include Marina. She herself is aimlessly adrift, if not quite underwater, and seems to have decided on this visit for lack of anything else to do. Ostensibly she is working on a course essay on Dante Gabriel Rossetti - "the literary themes in his paintings, I think, but I haven't quite decided," but mostly, she is just hanging out in a most post-adolescent sort of way.

Her sister is at work much of the day and Gabriel is having trouble with his current novel. The weather is hot, almost breathless, and the garden surrounding the house is falling prey to aphids, presumably because Stella has quite enough gardening to do as it is. Marina has little to occupy her, but doesn't seem to mind - her life seems suspended for the moment. As we imagine it will, the sexual tension builds between her and Gabriel.

It is very difficult to describe this novel without spoiling it. Reading it, I was cast into the same sort of state of absorbed attention that reminded me of how I felt watching certain Ingmar Bergman films. The faintly decadent, slightly over-ripe atmosphere of Pre-Raphaelite painting broods over the proceedings, with references to Millais' Ophelia and the unfortunate Lizzie Siddal, who was the model but who did not, in fact, die as a result of a chill caught by posing for hours in a frigid bath. Still the image of the motionless young woman, welcoming her fate with arms outstretched as she floats peacefully downstream past banks of flowers while her clothing bears her up, can stand as an emblem for the book as a whole.

Though a crime occurs at one point, or seems to have occurred at least, DROWNED is hardly a crime novel in the manner that we have come to expect from Swedish writers. Action is absent, as are bold, aggressive female heroes. No politics, at least overtly, either. Just a wholly controlled, absorbing account of inexplicable female passivity in the 21st century, a condition that seems to affect certain twenty-somethings of Sweden as much as it does those in New York, if the TV show Girls is any indication.

The translation, by Marlaine Delargy, is supple and effective and frequently mesmerizing.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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