The image of a drowned woman – beautiful and pale, her hair splayed around her like a waterlily – is at the centre of Therese Bohman’s debut novel, quietly haunting its pages with a persistent feeling of dread. Drowned is an exquisitely crafted, deceptively simple short novel about desire, betrayal and secrets, with an almost unbearable tension brewing between every line that balances the sensuality of its prose.
The first half of the novel takes place over a sweltering Swedish summer, when Marina – a bored, burnt out art history student – goes to stay with her older sister Stella and her new husband Gabriel in their beautiful country farmhouse. Gabriel is a well-known writer with an interest in the Romantic period, struggling to complete his latest novel. Straight away, Marina is drawn to him, captivated by his strong physical presence and his peculiar intensity. She senses a deeper friction beneath his reserved nature, and as they become closer and his relationship with Stella fractures, she witnesses his explosive bursts of passion, as well as his volatile anger.
The pacing is slow and the action subtle, so that the feeling of dread builds almost imperceptibly through small details – like Stella’s guardedness, the way she cryptically comments “Nothing works properly around here,” and “I think maybe there’s something wrong in the walls, or in the foundations. Mold, something wrong.” Then there are the strange marks on Stella’s body, the crying Marina hears at night, the way the neighbours traipse across the long distance between the two estates just to ask the girls if everything is okay.
The heat is oppressive, giving everything a “surreal sharpness” and saturating every scene with a feeling of menace. As Bohman slowly pulls at the threads of the shifting relationships between the three characters, she crafts images of nature that add to the disconcerting mood: “nasturiums tumble from an old zinc tub, a tangled, sprawling mass with shoots apparently sprouting at random in all directions, desperately searching for something to cling to.” She writes with restraint, each detail carefully chosen to heighten the languorous sensuality of the summer and the dark tensions simmering beneath the surface.
The second half of the novel skips ahead to a dark, sludgy winter. Marina returns to the house under different circumstances – in the months we’ve missed, something has happened that changes everything. Again, Bohman draws our attention to the weather, which is now pervasive and uncomfortable in a very different way. The elliptical structure allows Bohman to maintain the subtle sense of mystery, delving into darker territory while never revealing too much.
Drowned is an almost-perfect first novel, with a compelling intensity that works perfectly with the languid beauty of its language. It’s an impressive example of the potential of the short novel to create a lasting impact, and the complexity that can be contained within a slim, tightly controlled space.