Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1845
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 to be their new “traveller,” the designated man in this group of women. Half believing this (as perhaps only a teenager discovering sex would), half convinced she is manipulating him, he searches her room when she is gone and has to jump from a window to avoid detection when she comes back in. Afterward, she barely notices his broken foot, but when she sees a newspaper story about the unsolved murder in Blackwater, she hastily tells him it is time for him to leave. She also shakes free the eel he has been keeping in a cage into the lake; so much for his illusion of manhood.
Meanwhile, Annie Raft finds that everyone in the Starhill commune, especially her boyfriend Dan, seems to be keeping secrets—and every time she thinks she has discovered the truth, she stumbles into more secrets. It may or may not have been an accident that no one came to meet her at the bus when she arrived in town; the members of the commune may or may not have discovered the dead bodies before she stumbled across them; they may or may not know some secrets about who the dead people were and how they died. Finally, Annie, who is pregnant again, gets sick of the deceit and sets out on skis to escape from this commune. For Annie as for Johan, the attempt to escape into another world, an alternate reality, fails miserably; both characters have to go back home.
If the first part of the novel is the story of how an unexpected shock of a seemingly senseless accident tears apart the lives of many different people, the second part is the story of the shocks of revelation when the seemingly senseless and disparate acts of years ago begin to make sense and show connections. The biggest shock of the novel is when the reader discovers in part 2 of the novel, eighteen years later, that the second murder of the novel is the murder of Annie Raft herself. Again, this murder seems to be completely senseless; but its occurrence so soon after she had seen Johan again argues for a connection between the two murders. Johan and the doctor Birger Torbjornsson (who it turns out has been a romantic partner of Annie for some time) slowly begin to investigate. Birger discovers that Mia has known for many years the name of the male murder victim; she learned it from the other children of the Starhill commune. Meanwhile, Johan, who has discovered from a library book that the myth of the “traveller” is a real myth determines to track Ylja down to learn her part in this affair. Together, the two of them set about piecing together the secrets of eighteen years before.
That the narrative succeeds in pulling together seemingly unrelated elements, and linking them all to the murdered man, if not to the actual murder, is a stunning narrative achievement in itself. Along the way, however, readers also get to know enough about the life that Annie Raft has been living for the last eighteen years to want to know her better. This is certainly intended by the author as a strategy to make us feel the loss of life that her death represents; Ekman is so effective in this that one might almost wish she had dispensed with the murder mystery plot completely and instead written a novel about Annie Raft, single mother and creative teacher.
The mature professional that Annie becomes after her experiences with Dan Ulander and the Starhill commune is such a compelling figure that it seems a shame to let the reader barely glimpse her life before killing her off to satisfy the demands of the genre; yet making the reader feel her loss in that way is precisely the success of this artistically rendered novel.
Kerstin Ekman knows her region and her people well. She knows the subtle tensions between Swedes and Norwegians and Finns, and the psychological cost of the ethnic tensions in border regions, such as in the town of Blackwater. Despite the clarity of her main characters, however, the sheer size of her cast and her untethered narrative perspective, which unexpectedly plunks readers down into the life and the mind of a character they did not expect to be asked to follow so closely, makes this a book that can be confusing to read, especially during the first half of part 1. Nevertheless, a guide to the principal characters included after the title page goes a long way toward dispelling this confusion.
Ekman is not the pompous kind of writer who will demand that her characters engage in sophomoric conversations about the essential goodness of humankind or the nature of evil. She does, however, have an understanding of the causes of what we call evil, and those looking for ideas in her writing will find them. Her ideas, however, are to be found in the way her characters live more than in what they say: in the secrets they hide that they should not, in the secrets they try to keep hidden but cannot, and in the sometimes tragic and sometimes merely frustrating confusion that results when too many people are trying too hard to protect these secrets.
Although Blackwater is Ekman’s first novel to appear in English, it is her seventeenth novel overall, and the dust jacket lists a number of prestigious awards she has won for writing them. Judging her work on the basis of this engaging sample, it is easy to see why she has been so successful. She is a careful, artistic novelist in full command of her craft who has taken the outrage of murder as her subject matter, but who gives away almost nothing to the expectations of the murder mystery genre.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCII, December 15, 1995, p. 667.
Bookwatch. XVII, March, 1996, p. 5.
New Statesman and Society. VIII, April 21, 1995, p. 37.
The New York Times Book Review. CI, March 17, 1996, p. 24.
The New Yorker. LXXII, June 17, 1996, p. 100.
The Observer. April 23, 1995, p. 20.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, December 4, 1995, p. 51.
Twin Cities Reader. XXII, January 31, 1996, p. 20.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, March 3, 1996, p. 9.
The Women’s Review of Books. XIII, July, 1996, p. 38.
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