Friday, October 18, 2013

The Darkest Room - Johan Theorin - The pain of loss and the weight of memories

"That's what we will all be one day. Memories and ghosts". Thus ends Johan Theorin's 'The Darkest Room' and it perfectly encapsulates the dilemma of the main character in the book and also of us readers. Throughout the novel and even at the end both cannot come to a conclusion as to whether there was actually any supernatural activity involved in the events that are described. Purists who either expect a typical crime fiction or a novel with explicit supernatural overtones would be disappointed, a little heads up for you to keep your mind open.

Joakim and Katrine have moved to an old manor house (Eel Point) in the Swedish island of Oland with their 2 kids. There are some vague hints thrown about some family tragedy that occured about and year ago and also about Katrine's history with Oland both of which are not explained in detail. Could they be relevant to the story? Soon after, Kartine dies in what is termed as a drowning accident and the core events of the novel are set in motion.

Following in the tradition of Scandinavian crime fiction, Johan focuses more on the characters, bringing out the pain of loss and the unhinging it may cause. Livia, Joakim's daughter has habit of talking in sleep and after her mother's death she says things to the effect that Katrine is outside the home and waiting to come in. Joakim initially seems to dismiss it as a kid's fantasy but seems to slowly start believing in it. This is brought out particularly well. Initially when Joakim sleeps with Katrine's dress it seems as a way of numbing the pain. Then he starts asking Livia as to what she sees outside the house, what her mother is saying. But when he then purchases a Christmas present for Katrine, it is then you know that he is going too far down a path from which there is no return.

Interleaved into the main narrative are 2 parallel narrative threads involving a trio of house-breakers and Tilda a policewoman who has personal problems of her own. Also in the mix is a series of vignettes from the life of people who lived in 'Eel Point' in the past. Though we do not know whether these vignettes are true, they do add a sense of foreboding.Whether it is a case of too much memories or ghosts, both cannot do much good. Johan takes his time unfolding his story, alternating between the various strands. There are also the standard set pieces one can see/read in works involving the supernatural, like the barn door always getting open even though Joakim closes it (is it an invitation for him to explore it?), Joakim suddenly missing the kids, searching frantically for them everywhere and finally finding them at their bedroom, the legends about the dead coming back on Christmas eve to have their own mass etc. 

Thought nothing much happens for about 3 quarters of the novel, other than vague hints about dark things to come, Johan ensures that it doesn't get boring or repetitive with both this characterization and also by his masterful evocation of Oland and Eel point. This is a very atmospheric novel, where the landscape/climate become an integral part of the narrative without us even noticing it. The landscapes and the manor are at times beautifully desolate, sometimes forbidding and sometimes downright scary. One can almost hear the groans of the memories (or ghosts?) of the people who lived in Eel point waiting to get out. By far this is the most atmospheric of all Scandinavian crime fiction that I have read (just about edging 'Arnaldur Indridason').

Towards the end there is a bit of looseness when Johan ties up the major threads on the night of Christmas eve (when the blizzard hits the island). The issue is not that it seems forced to resolve everything on a single night (which of course requires a certain suspension of disbelief), but that a couple of resolutions are quite predictable, you can guess them even as the final events start to unfold. But as a set piece, the events in the blizzard are quite good, with particularly Joakim's experience having an hallucinatory feel about it.  There is actually a solution to the core mystery (with a final confrontation that seems have been put in to give at-least some measure of closure to Joakim), but an ambiguity remains in how did Joakim arrive at it. This ensures that the ending doesn't betray what the novel stood for from the beginning.

So is this crime fiction or a supernatural story? One could argue both ways and both could be correct as per the individual view point, but that wouldn't be sufficient to try to make sense of the novel. 'The Darkest' room doesn't just refer to a room in the manor, it also refers to a part in us (am reminded a bit of Denise Mina's 'Sanctum') where all our memories get accumulated. Some like Tilda's grandfather and Katrine's mother treat those memories as 'Ghosts' (for both of them, ghosts are always around us and talking to ghosts is no big thing) which is one way of dealing with them. 

Johan's works seem to be standalone novels so there seems to be no chance to read further about Joakim, but I would be/am very interested to see how Joakim carries on with his life. Though Joakim can't completely decide one way or other at the end of the novel, I suspect that if we (Johan) continue to follow Joakim, we could see him start to completely believe in ghosts. For, that seems to be the only way to alleviate a bit of the pain caused by loss and memories.

This is the only book of Johan that I have read, so am not sure about the quality of his oeuvre. But but based on this novel, I would say that he is a worthy descendant of the Scandinavian masters. Give this book a read.

1 comment:

  1. Theorin is one of my favourite writers although I don't think any of his novels have beaten is debut 'Echoes from the Dead'. Glad you liked it though.