“We are as braided into this mountain as it is braided into us”
I had been very impressed, albeit with some reservations, by Cecilia Ekbäck’s first novel, Wolf Winter, set in 1717 in what was Swedish Lapland. The author created a mysterious, darkly menacing, isolated settlement in Blackäsen Mountain. Wolf Winter was for the most part, literary and historical fiction, but with crime at its heart. Ekbäck seemed both more interested, and more successful, in exploring interesting themes – specifically the tension between two very different kinds of community Swedish, Christian, ‘modern’ European and the Lapps, whose traditions were different, shamanic, more united as ‘outsiders.’ She also had a major focus on the disparities of power between men and women, and how women of independent outlook might survive in earlier times where opportunities were very restricted. One of her many strengths was a connection to place itself, landscape as a central driver of plot and a central relationship for character.
So I was particularly pleased to see that with her second novel she returned to the powerful, brooding Blackäsan mountain, and even more delighted to see that this was not going to be any kind of sequel – place remains the constant, but almost 150 years have passed. We are recognisably in a more modern, industrial era, but though there have been political changes, the potential conflicts between the Swedish settlers and the now Christianised, still nomadic Lapps, and their not completely eradicated, older, shamanic traditions, still exist. And the role of women has become even more complex. The Author’s note at the back of the book sets the historical background – from the middle of the 1850s there was a growing women’s movement, making demands for economic justice and the right to vote (which didn’t happen till 1921). There is also a very negative view of the Sami people (the Lapps), by the Swedish population
As in Wolf Winter, Ekback’s strengths are much in evidence – setting, complex and believeable individual psychology and group psychology, and events taking place in the lives of individuals in a wider context. Strong characterisation, and a generally hypnotic, absorbing narrative. Character development, unpredictability, and a powerful sense of ancient, inexplicable forces. The sense of time and place are strong.
Unfortunately, as with Wolf Winter, what was heading for sure five star all through fell off target for me in roughly the last 40 pages. At the heart of the story is savage crime, and, set within an isolated, very cut off community, everyone is suspect. Though there is no detective, central characters, 2 outsiders are drawn into trying to solve a continuing, dark, violent crime. And in the closing stages of the novel solving the crime, understanding its gestation and chilling history, as the spotlight turns on person after person and the body count rises, proved far less interesting than the absorption of all that had gone before.
Ekbäck is far more interesting and accomplished a writer of literary fiction, than she is a crime writer, but the selling/marketing of the book is ‘Nordic Noir’. The ratchet up of violence and the solving of the mystery, for this reader, would have benefitted from greater simplicity, rather than complexity.
The story is told first person in 4 voices. Magnus Stille, an upright, scientifically minded man, working for the Swedish Board of Mines is on an assignment to investigate Blackäsen for the possibility of mining for iron ore. Foisted onto him at the eleventh hour by his father-in-law, is his disgraced, rebellious, psychologically damaged young sister-in-law, Lovisa. The third voice, third central character is ‘Ester’, whose original, Sami name before being Christianised is Biija. She is an elderly woman, recently widowed. Her tribe have gone to their summer pastures, she remains, mourning. And there is a fourth voice, whose identity reveals itself more slowly.
I don’t believe anything is ‘meant to be’. I don’t believe in destiny in that way.
But should you act or speak, there will be a response. You neglect something and that has consequences too. The universe responds.
And so, wherever we find ourselves – whether we like it or not, whether we join or not; we are a part of the unfolding of events.
I have a couple of ‘not quite convinced’ feelings about the narrative voices. Although absolutely each character is beautifully delineated and clear I was not always hearing 3 distinct voices in the ‘I’ of each narrator, the voice in the head. And (though I came to understand the rationale for this rather more by the end of the book) I was not quite convinced of the propriety of Karl Rosenblad, the State Minister of Justice, and Magnus Stille’s father-in-law, sending his disgraced, and in his eyes, morally depraved daughter Lovisa, away to journey with her brother-in-law. It was certainly something which all those they encountered in Blackäsen, and on the journey there, found extremely odd and ‘not quite right’ Lovisa is a most interesting character, it was just that I found myself musing about received proprieties.
Ekbäck’s first novel was set in winter on Blackäsen mountain, where the darkness was menacing and harsh. Here, it is the light – the eeriness of June, and perpetual daylight
Another night and I can’t sleep. How can anyone, in this perpetual sunshine? Without blinds, the light floods the room, makes my soul itch, and my legs ache. It can’t continue like this. I haven’t slept since I set out on my journey
I do recommend this, and will certainly be very keen to read Ekbäck’s next novel, but hope that she is not marketed, and indeed, that she does not think of herself as a Nordic Noir writer. The genre aspect I think is more of a bind on her writing
I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK. It will be published, UK and Stateside on June 16th