A so nearly excellent read, but fell badly at a far too ambitious and implausible ‘wrap’
For most of this roughly 400 page first novel by Cecilia Ekbäck, I was absorbed and immersed, and able to suspend my disbelief over some inconsistencies or improbabilities. However, within the final 50 pages, the author attempted a far too complicated trail of red herrings and multiple conspiracies, which rather weakened the undoubted strength of the book – the ability to capture a historical period, within an isolated sombre geography – Swedish Lapland in 1717, and a conglomeration of rather diverse, scattered communities, travellers and residents.
Without revealing spoilers, a small family, with clearly some not quite revealed `history’ and cupboards which might contain the odd skeleton, leave their coastal community of Ostrobothnia in Finland, to come to the mountainous, forested settlement of Blackasen Mountain. Mother Maija, an `earthwoman’ – midwife, father Paavo, previously a fisherman, and their two daughters, 14 year old Frederika and 6 year old Dorotea come to settle a homestead originally owned by Paavo’s uncle, who appeared to leave the homestead in rather mysterious circumstances.
Mystery in fact is everywhere. Maija, her own grandmother and Frederika have second sight, and can commune, willingly or unwillingly with elemental forces and the dead. Paavo is prey to extreme terrors and has become landlocked, unable to engage in his watery trade.
Blackasen Mountain itself has some curious, unsettling dark past, involving people who have gone missing. The landscape (beautifully described) is harsh, secretive, unforgiving and almost alive.
The two daughters discover a slaughtered body. The scattered community are tight-lipped about what might have happened, and are inclined to try and convince themselves and each other that this is the work of a bear, or of wolves.
Meanwhile, on a wider stage, Sweden has been in conflict with Russia, the Swedish King may not be altogether the most popular and secure of monarchs, a Calvinist Church is trying to maintain and control hierarchies within society, and older, animist, shamanist beliefs are still more potent beliefs for some, than Christianity. There are also conflicts between the settled Swedish homesteaders and the nomadic community of Lapps.
The small community, with its isolated homesteads, its nomadic winter Laplander visitors, is both closed in on itself and mutually suspicious of itself.
A small cast of characters, and the probability that it is someone within the community, rather than bear or wolf who is the murderer.
Almost everyone appears to have secrets; and, because of this, almost everyone might have motive.
History, crime, thriller, and the ratchet turned up into horror with the highly plausible (given the culture of the time and place) supernatural elements, and some stunning writing which brings home the harshness and difficulty of survival, and the terrifying, brooding beauty of the land itself, kept me engaged as Maija and Frederika, driven by the strength and fierceness of their own natures, are drawn into the need to understand and investigate. Mother and daughter also have their own conflicts with each other, and with the acceptance, or otherwise of the ‘gifts’ they have.
Character, relationships, narrative, setting, descriptive writing are all engaging. If only the author had known when to stop, and when a conspiracy and a whole raft of red herrings are just a bunch of fish too far.
This did, just, get the 4 star rating which means it made this blog, as in the end, on reflection the absorption of the reading experience for most of the book pulls this up into `recommended’ despite the crashing, thumping overdone complexities of the final solutions.
However……… Ekbäck is for sure a writer to watch
And for those who care about such things……please be aware that though wolves may figure in the story, as creatures who inhabit the cold Northern forests, and though I mentioned there are supernatural elements, please be assured nothing so crass as that oh-so-predictable and formulaic appearance of a werewolf mars the pages of this book! Werewolves are thankfully conspicuous only by their absence!
I received this as an early ARC from the Amazon Vine UK programme. It is due for publication in February 2015
Pre-publication comparisons have been to Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and Stef Penney’s The Tenderness Of Wolves, both stunning first novels. I didn’t find the comparisons unwarranted, for most of my read, even though in the end this author had had a rather clumsy tumble, where Kent and Penney were sure-footed all through