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There's been quite a bit of word-of-mouth buzz about Swedish Johan Theorin's debut novel Echoes From The Dead and all I can add is that it's certainly worth it.
How refreshing it is to read a novel that feels different in its structure, mainly because the two interwoven stories have tenuous links, possibly and just simply from the imagination of the characters we meet, until the race to the dénouement makes a final connection that shocks and surprises, but does not cheat the reader. The "more" factor comes from an exploration of grief, the reconciliation of estranged relationships and the need to seek resolution. This is indeed a stunning debut.
The novel opens in 1972 on the island of Öland, where the almost six year old Jens, under the care of his maternal grandparents takes an adventure and climbs over a wall into the unknown. Very soon he is lost in a thick mass of fog on the island and is very frightened; but then he meets a young man who introduces himself as Nils Kant, who reassures Jens and reaches out his hand to the boy.
Roll on the current day, some twenty years later and we discover that Jens has never been found, alive or dead. His mother Julia has never come to terms with his loss: she has been on long term sick leave from her role as a nurse; survived on social security benefits and, as finances allow, continued to prop up her existence with pills and wine. All this, until the day her nursing-home-resident-widowed father, Gerlof calls her to say that he has received a sandal in the mail and that it appears to be one of the pair that Jens was wearing when he disappeared.
And so the story begins: Gerlof, physically but not mentally limited by the ailments of old age, wants to piece together the fragments of fact and supposition that he and his friends have accumulated over time; whereas Julia is pulled from her cave of ongoing grief and is initially clutching at straws, each as they come, innocent of any facts that her father has accumulated. Their initial meeting is not easy, as both know grief and guilt both play a significant part. But how they seek to overcome that, how their personal journeys present an uneasy reconciliation form one of the beauties of this novel. They are united in finding out what happened to Jens.
The other story interwoven is that of Nils Kant and this is addressed across a much longer period of time than the twenty year loss of Jens. He appears to be the prime suspect, although his body was returned to Sweden for burial before Jens died. Not that the locals believed the body was his: many, remembering his early years in Öland and its surrounds, have him up there as the purveyor of all evil, and they are sure they have seen him drifting in the fog since.
When Theorin recounts the story of Nils Kant, it is not a pretty sight; that feeling of evil is soon paramount. Pure malice and malevolence seem to drive this young man and he seems to know no boundaries, given his mother has overfed his ego – forget obesity here - Kant's ego is the star. This is surely a serial-killer in the making? But, to get the whole wonder and benefit of the novel, you simply just have to read it.
Gerlof makes for a fantastic amateur investigator as his mind remains so keen where his body cannot, albeit if I was his daughter, I'd have found him frustrating to the max in his wish to see the parts of the evidence that he knew, (or story), divulged in a slow drip feed, because he thought that best.
Julia has a remarkable journey, mainly due to thanks to those who live on the island all year round. (This is a holiday resort for the Swedes and it's over-populated in the summer but a veritable ghost town at all other times, adding to the heavy atmosphere of the story.)
Nils Kant? Ah yes, Nils Kant. Go read this novel, quickly. I say no more.
This novel will truly keep you guessing to the end. But the journeys of the main characters will also keep you enthralled. A high point for 2008? Yes, I agree. What happened to that innocent young boy? You will find out, but not as anticipated. Prepare for a gut-wrenching-emotional-roller-coaster-ride and you will want to read this to the end. But don't expect a ferocious start: this is a slow-build novel that titillates the mind initially, then leads to that ever slow build of tension and suspense we are all familiar with, before settling on a ground note of… Oh, go on, just read it and enjoy!
Other positive reviews are here:
Both can be found at Eurocrime, a major depository for all things crime in Europe.
Just one note of irritation with this novel. Not sure it's the translation or the way people speak in Sweden (which I doubt), but there is a major repetitive with the word "Right" as a dialogue response to a fact, or theory stated. This comes from the "black and white" stable and an "OK" or "I see", or a simple "Yeah" would have been more appropriate on times. The incessant use of "Right" suggested the characters as juvenile, even though none of them was. But that's just a minor irritation (as was the one-off translation of "cell phone" for "mobile" in the UK).
Johan Theorin? A force to be reckoned with in the future, I imagine. Let us get the rest in translation here in the UK, as soon as it comes…
And here he is, the author himself - pic with Tess Gerritsen, at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, courtesy of his UK publisher Transworld – and just one step off that magical beanie-adorning giant made so popular by David Tennant in his current RSC outing as Hamlet at Stratford. And honestly, you'd swear they were in Belgium with those beer glasses…
But really, for talent, just read the book! You won't need anything else. I promise! Not even a beer to keep you going. Not even a beanie to keep you warm.
Theorin's Echoes From The Dead is really one of the best crime novels to read this year. Original in storyline and keen on character and character development, it really is superb. Don't pass this one by, whatever you do. I saw this on the tables in my local Waterstone's branch two weekends ago and it deserves to find an empty space on said tables.