The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin

the voices beyondBack in the USSR…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Jonas is spending the summer on the island of Öland at the resort owned by his family, the Klosses. One night, he takes his dingy out onto the sea. Drifting in the darkness, a sudden shaft of moonlight shows a boat approaching and he doesn’t have time to get out of the way. He manages to climb aboard the boat before his dingy is sunk, but what awaits him there is the stuff of nightmares – dying men (or are they already dead?) on the deck stalking towards him and calling out in a language he doesn’t understand. Terrified, Jonas jumps overboard and manages eventually to swim to shore. He makes for the first lighted dwelling he sees – the boathouse of old Gerlof, who’s back staying in Öland for the summer months. Something odd happened to Gerlof too when he was young, so despite the strangeness of Jonas’ story, Gerlof believes him – and so is sucked into a mystery that will get darker as the summer wears on…

This will undoubtedly appear in my best of the year list this year. The first two chapters – the one on the boat, and the one about the spooky experience in Gerlof’s youth – are brilliantly atmospheric, hooking the reader right from the beginning. And the rest of the book pretty much maintains that high standard all the way through. The next few chapters introduce the various characters, giving a bit of back-story for each and then bringing them all to the island in time for the Midsummer celebrations in 1999. At this point it can be a bit confusing as to how they will all fit into the story but Theorin gives just the right amount of information at each stage to keep the story flowing.

The characterisation is particularly strong. There are several main characters, and the chapters rotate amongst them, all in the third person – Gerlof, a life-long resident of the island, elderly now but still with a curiosity about life that means he gets himself involved in other people’s problems; Jonas, visiting the island for the summer and feeling a bit isolated as his brother and cousins consider him to be too young to take along with them; Lisa – a musician and DJ who’s working at the resort for the summer; and Aron, who left Öland for the ‘new country’ as a child and has now come home, though we don’t learn why till later. Gerlof is both well drawn and likeable – as a man of 86, Theorin never makes the mistake of having him be some kind of physical hero. Rather he is someone who is good at listening and believing, and at persuading people to talk to him. Aron is enigmatic – it’s clear from his first appearance that he’s plotting something bad and has a grudge against the Kloss family, but as his story is gradually revealed, it’s hard not to find some empathy or, at least, pity for him – some understanding of why he has become who he is.

Johan Theorin
Johan Theorin

The bulk of the book is set in the present day, but there’s another strand that takes the reader back to time of the Great Terror in the Stalinist USSR, and it is this strand that lifts the book so far above average. As it happens, I have recently read a history of the Stalinist period, so for once am in a position to say that the picture Theorin paints of this time is totally authentic and clearly based on very thorough research. I’m not going to say any more about this part of the plot, because the way that Theorin gradually reveals the story is the real strength of the book. But this time of horrors is brilliantly depicted – no punches are pulled, and there are some scenes that are grim and dark indeed. Theorin doesn’t wallow, though, and at all times he puts a great deal of humanity into the story which, while it doesn’t mitigate the horrors, softens the edges a little, making it very moving at times.

Back in the present, all the various strands are gradually pulled together in the lead up to an explosive thriller finish – well foreshadowed, but still surprising and shocking when it comes. And just to finish off one of the most perfectly structured crime/thrillers I’ve read in a while, the epilogue is as compelling as the first couple of chapters were. Though this works perfectly well as a standalone, it’s the fourth in Theorin’s Öland Quartet, with Gerlof as the recurring character who links them. I shall promptly be adding the other three to the TBR. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.

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54 thoughts on “The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin

    • I’ve only read one of his other books – The Asylum – which was very good too, though I think this one is better. I’ll definitely be looking to read the other three in the quartet. 🙂

  1. Oh, that’s Theorin for you, FictionFan! He’s so talented at creating atmosphere and really conveying ‘spooky’ without straying too far from credibility. I do love Gerlof Davidsson, too – such a fabulous character. Glad you enjoyed this one.

    • I’ve only read one other previously – The Asylum, which I thought was very good but not as good as this one. Of course, often it just comes down to whether the reader finds the subject matter interesting and in this case I did. I loved Gerlof’s character – very believable and well drawn. *sighs* Another three for the TBR…

  2. I haven’t read any of Theorin’s works, so this one sounds most intriguing. Doggone it, my TBR list just keeps growing by leaps and bounds! Great review, FF, and thank you as always for telling me just enough to pique my interest!

    • Haha! That’s my evil plan – to make everyone else’s TBR even worse than my own! This really was good though and I’ve only read one other of his books – The Asylum – which I thoroughly enjoyed too. Well worth investigating… 🙂

  3. Wow! Sounds fabulous! I just finished a short middle grade novel called “Breaking Stalin’s Nose.” Very well done, depicting the unfolding horror from a kid’s perspective.

    I have a post from way back in 2012 that you might enjoy, highlighting Russian writers’ response to Putin’s crackdown on dissent and recalling the power of politically-charged poetry with Akhmatova’s poems.

    http://jilannehoffmann.com/2012/05/14/the-power-of-the-pen/#more-496

    • I thought this one got the tone just about right – there are some really horrific scenes but horrific because of the helplessness of those involved rather than just because of the gore. Sensitively done, I felt, and entirely credible.

      Great post – thanks for the link! In turn I’ll recommend to you Ken Kalfus’ PU-239 and Other Stories – the last story is about the trials of being a writer in the USSR. Again, not over-stated, quite humorous in places, in fact, but as always with Kalfus thoughtful and thought-provoking. 🙂

      • Oh, so now I must add another to my list? Will this never end? Helplessness without the gore is often more horrifying than blood and guts, isn’t it? I’m thinking of Kafka right now. But, OK, I’ll toss another on the barbie….thanks! 😀

  4. A dingy?! *laughing lots* No wonder everything went South. However, I think he was on Davy Jones ship, see.

    Look at that hat! I soooooooo want one. Plus, that chap is pulling off the Statham look very well.

    • Ah, that would explain why he couldn’t understand them – they’d all have been speaking with American accents!

      Well… you may have the hat, but you must promise me you won’t copy the beard. It’s…

          • *laughing lots and lots* That is so hilarious. But then, I’ve never heard a giraffe with a cold. I’m going to have to pretend to be British, then. And just when I was thinking about making movies…

            Bunnets! Thanks. (Not sure why I didn’t get notifications you answered! My gmail is crazy. Hate it to many deaths.) *laughing* It does! What color should I get?

            • I bet you have but just thought it was a fellow countryman up a tree – they get everywhere, these giraffes. That should be fun! You could be a Cockney, like Dick Van Dyke. Eh? Expand…

              (Ah, I wondered why you were suddenly resurrecting old comments – I just assumed you were trying to keep the number of ongoing conversations down to a sensible number.) Tartan!!

            • Wasn’t Dick American? See, I’ve got this theory: there is no American accent. Unless you’re from New York, the South, or Cali. Bring back the studio!

              (*laughs* I’m not that sensible!)

            • He was, but he was famous for doing a really bad Cockney accent in Mary Poppins. *nods* Or Pittsboig… Ooh… yes you should!!!!!

              (*laughs too* It did surprise me, I admit…)

            • Pittsboig! That is hilarious. I don’t have a Pittsburgh accent. With ‘yuns’ and all that interesting stuff. Can you just teach me to have a Glaswegian one?

              (Any excuse to bother you…and I will!)

            • Isn’t that how you spell it? It’s like “you guys”. I don’t use it at all. *shudders* New York? Really? I am not! *laughs* I’m not sure if that helps. Sounds like a different language!

              (Yes! That’s the case.)

            • I’ve never heard it! Euww! It’s horrid! Well, you talk as fast as New Yorkers – as fast as a speeding bullet, in fact! *laughs* I hope you spotted the reference to bahooky – now you know I didn’t make it up!

              (See!! You’ve mastered it! *proud face*)

            • Faster than a speeding bullet? *laughs* I’ve never thought on it before. You just must talk slowly. I did notice bahooky! Goodness. It’s a real word.

              (Do you really say that sort of thing?)

            • I don’t know whether I talk slow or fast to be honest. It is! But not considered swearing or offensive…

              (*laughs* No, Parliamo Glasgow is totally exaggerated – it was aimed at a Scottish audience really to make fun of ourselves. I’m afraid generally speaking I talk standard English…)

    • I think you’d really enjoy this one… and the other three in the series… and all his other books too! *cackles wickedly* If I can’t get my own TBR down, the only answer is to push everyone else’s up!

  5. I find Russian history quite fascinating, and this review definitely makes me think I’d enjoy The Voices Beyond. He spoke at a panel at Bloody Scotland, with two other Nordic Noir writers, and was really interesting. Definitely going on my TBR, FF – 5 smileys from you aren’t given lightly! 😉

    • I think you would enjoy this one, and his books in general. He’s very good at creating atmosphere and believable characters, and the USSR stuff in this made it particularly interesting. Haha! I must admit not so many crime books have been getting 5 stars from me recently…

  6. Nice review! I’m always looking for other book reviewers who use clear criteria when discussing a book, instead of the simple “I liked/didn’t like it.” I hope we can be book review buddies 🙂

    • It varies with me depending on how they’re written. Although this one is grim in places, he handles it with a lot of sensitivity – there’s nothing in there that glorifies anything that happened. But sometimes I find dark books just too dark…

    • I think I’ve given everyone the idea that he’s Russian – the book’s actually set in Sweden, just with a strand about the USSR. So sorry – it’s one of those (many) times when I’ve forgotten to mention one of the important bits in my review! The book’s still well worth reading though… 😉

    • Sorry, Alison, I’ve had a look at Audible as you probably already have too, but it’s not there. It looks as though the last book in the series was issued as an audiobook, though, so hopefully this one will be at some point too.

      Thanks for popping by and commenting. 🙂

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