Echoes From the Dead by Johan Theorin is such a marvellous, evocative and yet also oppressive book to read. Set on the Swedish Island of Oland, it tells the story of Julia Davidsson whose six-year-old son, Jens, went missing on the fog-bound alvar (marshes/fields) of the island over twenty years earlier. When her mostly estranged elderly father, who has abandoned his home on the isle and thus independence for the comfort of a nursing home, is sent her son’s sandal in the post, it not only reopens wounds Julia has never allowed to heal, but sends her back to the island she left all those years ago and the memories it holds in order to discover the truth of her son’s disappearance.
Tied in with Julia, Jens and Julia’s father’s story is that of the island’s resident sociopath, Nils Kant. Believed dead and buried long ago, stories about Nils as a violent boy and later, as an aggressive and exiled man, continue to swirl, his ghost haunting not just the remaining residents, but managing to inculcate its way into Jens’ possible fate as well.
When friends of Julia’s father and others who believe Nil Kants still lives and will do anything to prevent his whereabouts from being discovered die or are silenced, Julia and her father risk their lives to discover exactly what the island of Oland is hiding.
Ostensibly a story about loss and grief, and the impact this has on an individual and families, it’s also about the way people deal with trauma and the resultant victim status that can follow. Segueing between past and present, the war and changing socio-economic circumstances of the country, island and industries, the novel cleverly situates, but never reduces, personal tragedy within a wider cultural and social picture. While the landscape and weather of Oland is stunningly created, the cold, the wind and rain and the frigid waters that lap the sands, as well as the thick fog that can descend and obscure, it’s the internal landscapes of the characters, particularly Julia’s, that are the most suffocating and, like the fog, almost impossible to escape from. Her grim reality and the demons that haunt her and heart-breaking and so very real and poignant.
Interior lives and histories are masterfully rendered and though the book is slow-moving, it is never, ever dull. On the contrary, I couldn’t put it down and despite reading closely (wrapped in a blanket with one eye over my shoulder), I never saw the tragic twist in the finale coming.
As soon as I finished, I immediately downloaded Theorin’s next novel, also set in Oland. Before I commence, I want to raise my head, absorb some light and warmth and then plunge back into what I’ve no doubt will be another delightfully gloomy prospect.