In the second half of part 1 of Kerstin Ekman’s Blackwater, it appears clear that the novel is going to be about how a murder that is never solved changes the lives of several people. The main characters of this first part, Annie Raft, Johan Brandberg, and Birger Torbjornsson all have their own secrets to protect, but in each case, their secrets are their hopes and fears which get bruised and abused by the investigation and apparent cover-up going on around them. Indeed, that is the nature of part 1 of the novel: It is less a murder mystery than a novel about the rippling waves that a murder causes. Part 2, however, becomes a bravura detective story when, eighteen years after the first murder, a second murder occurs. Facts that were obvious but insignificant eighteen years ago suddenly seem to be significant, and people who refused to talk after the first murder easily open up their secrets.
This novel, translated so seamlessly into English that it is hard to believe it is a translation, begins when Annie Raft recognizes that the man who drives her twenty-three-year-old daughter Mia home one night is the same man she and Mia glimpsed in a forest one night eighteen years ago, a night they stumbled upon a murder scene. Annie has always believed that this man, Johan Brandberg, who was a teenager at the time, was responsible for the murders, although she has never known his name until Mia tells it to her. This triggers the narrative flashback which constitutes the core of part 1 of the novel.
As a flashback, the material in part 1 is unconventional in that it does not stick to a single point of view. Ekman’s narrator roams freely, touching on the lives of Annie and Mia arriving in Blackwater, a small town in the far northern region of Sweden, Johan Brandberg, trying to escape his bullying brothers, and a variety of other characters, most notably Birger Torbjornsson, the district doctor, whose narrative role in the plot takes a while to become clear.
It takes sixty-three pages before the discovery of the central murder of an unknown man and woman who were camping in a tent. Even before that, however, the writer does a good job of creating an air of mystery and menace. Annie Raft has arrived in Blackwater to join her boyfriend, Dan Ulander in living at the Starhill commune, a back-to-earth group (this portion of the book is set in 1974), but Dan never appears. Following a map, she drags her daughter through the thick forest, trying to make her way up to the commune she has never been to; it is in the woods that she encounters the mysterious (to her) young man, Johan Brandberg, who seems to be fleeing.
The reader, meanwhile, has also been following Johan’s story, as he was roughed up by his older half brothers, who believe that he ratted on his father for hitting an obnoxious neighbor. His brothers lower Johan into an empty well with a rope and leave him there. In one of the more interesting symbolic moves in the novel, the author describes an eel who has also been living in the little bit of water in this well, probably having been placed there when the well was active to keep it clear of insects. Johan wraps the thick, old eel in his shirt and takes it with him as he determinedly climbs up out of the well. Figuratively, the eel seems to represent Johan’s own manhood, which he now believes he is taking control of, having determined to leave his overprotective mother and his bullying brothers behind. It is this bloodied, determined, and near desperate young man that Mia later believes to have committed a murder. Part of the success of the narrative is that, although readers of the novel know Johan well and cannot understand how he could have committed these murders, Ekman creates a confused character pushed to a far enough extreme that readers cannot completely discount the possibility.
As the investigation into the murder turns up nothing—no identity for the male victim, no suspects, no solid clues—Johan’s and Mia’s fates seem to distantly echo each other, in that both fall in with people who are not quite what they seem. Yet it is also unclear if the true nature of their secrets is in any way connected to the unsolved murder. Johan gets picked up by a mysterious woman who calls herself Ylja, though she also hints that that is not her real name. She offers to give him shelter for a few days in a shed, where she brings him food and meets him for sex. When he demands an explanation of what she wants from him, she claims that she is a part of a secret cabal of women; he is...
(The entire section is 1845 words.)