In Ödesmark, a sparsely-populated village in the far north of Sweden, early spring retains is icy grip. Down-trodden Liv Björnlund lives with her seventeen-year-old son Simon and Vidar, her ageing, domineering father, in Björngården, her now much-neglected childhood home. When she was much younger she had made many attempts to leave, hitching rides from any man who was prepared to give her a lift however, all were unsuccessful because her father always tracked her down and took her back home. Although her urge to leave remains strong, Vidar controls every aspect of her and Simon’s lives. Although rumoured to be extremely wealthy, with his fortune being kept in a safe in his bedroom to which only he knows the combination, he is a miserly man who refuses to spend money on anything he regards as a luxury.
As in any small community, rumours and gossip about the family are rife. Why has Liv allowed herself to remain dominated by her father for all these years? Who is Simon’s father? What really goes on behind closed doors? Vidar’s shady business deals over the years have affected several families in the village and have made him many enemies. One consequence of this is that for decades he has shunned their company and forced Liv and Simon to do the same, further isolating the family. He frequently tells Liv and Simon that … the Björnlunds weren’t much for company. We have solitude in our blood.
Another consequence is that memories are long, with the desire for revenge growing stronger amongst his neighbours. Now someone has become determined to reclaim what is theirs … whatever it takes. Two local drug-dealers, the violent, unpredictable Gabriel Lilja and his younger brother Liam, are employed to break into Vidar’s safe and steal his money but their attempt goes wrong and someone is killed. But was it an accident or was it murder? And who is responsible?
This story is told from the alternating perspectives of Liv and Liam. Through moving backwards and forwards in time, it offers ever-deeper insights into Liv’s life since 1998, when she made her first attempts to escape, the various influences which led her to remain, continuing to feel trapped and resentful yet unable to leave, as well as the nature of her ambivalent relationship with her father. One paragraph early in the story perfectly captures it’s essence …
It was like an unspoken agreement they had, a kind of dance, so if one was sitting at the table, the other stayed by the sink. If one was moving about the floor, the other stood still, almost as if the house couldn’t tolerate too much movement at the same time. Despite the fact that they had lived under the same roof since the day she was born, the distance between them had only grown.
Liam’s story has some parallels with Liv’s in that he too wants to make a better life for himself. He is bringing up his much- loved young daughter Vanja on his own and is desperate to provide a secure home for her. However, he can’t do this until he finds the strength to break away from the influence of his bullying, violent and controlling brother. As the story unfolds and suspicion shifts from one character to another, the tension inexorably builds and there is an ever-present sense of menace as rage-fuelled, vengeful feelings erupt into violence.
From the disturbing opening chapter it was clear that the story was likely to explore some very dark themes and to feature complex and deeply-flawed characters, a perfect combination for a compelling and at times a very disturbing read. The slow but remorseless build-up of tension added ever more layers of darkness to this deftly plotted story and I frequently found myself feeling almost unbearably anxious about what would happen next. I admired the way the author retained a tight control over the plot development and the shifting of suspicion from one character to another, a level of control which kept me guessing until very close to the final dénouement … these days that doesn’t happen very often so it was something I particularly appreciated!
Each one of the characters was exceptionally well-drawn and their relationships and interactions were portrayed with a psychological credibility which I found impressive, something which enabled me to very quickly feel engaged with them and to care about what would happen to them. I think the author also convincingly captured the rather incestuous nature of small, isolated communities and the many different ways in which rumour and gossip escalate, eventually providing fertile ground for simmering resentments to reach an emotional boiling point.
Central to the story is an exploration of the long-term, undermining effects of the coercive control which had over-shadowed the lives of Liv and Liam, enabling the reader to understand, and empathise with, their frequently submissive and apathetic behaviour … rather than just wanting to shout at them to take control of their lives! Other themes which would make this an excellent choice for book groups include friendship, loss, grief, the insidious nature of gossip and rumour in small communities and the various ways in which social background, dysfunctional family relationships and life-experiences can limit a person’s opportunities to improve their prospects.
Throughout the story I admired and appreciated the author’s perceptive observations of a whole range of human behaviour. Her ability to so convincingly capture the nuances of the characters tension-filled interactions meant that I frequently felt I was standing alongside them – quite a disconcerting feeling! She is equally talented in her impressive evocation of the landscape in which her story is set – the loneliness and claustrophobic isolation of the remote location, the sense of threat from the dark, brooding forest, a place which can hide hunters, of either the animal or human kind, and the falling snow which can so quickly obliterate tracks and deaden sounds.
I raved about Stina Jackson’s debut novel, The Silver Road, when it was first released in 2019 and wondered whether her second could possibly be as good … I’ve been delighted to discover that it is! Although in many ways it’s a much darker story, it is not without some lovely moments of lightness and humour and, ultimately, hope. This is another beautifully written novel from Stina Jackson (sympathetically translated by Susan Beard) and I recommend it without reservation.
With thanks to Readers First and the publisher for sending me this book in return for an unbiased review.
Review by Linda Hepworth
Personal read: 5*
Group read: 5*
Corvus (Imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.) 4th February 2021
ISBN: 978-1-78649-734-5 Hardback