😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
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.
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.