I wasn’t sure how Johan Theorin could set another tale on the Swedish island of Öland and hope to recapture the mood and richness of the first in the Öland Quartet, Echoes From the Grave, without replicating some of the tropes and ideas he developed and risking being predictable. I also wondered how or if he’d recycle old characters – many of whom didn’t seem to have any more of their story to tell. Silly me.
In The Darkest Room, not only has Theorin managed to craft a magnificent and original tale of loss, families, greed, deception, history and the way the past inflects the present, while never forgetting the humanity at the heart of all of these, he’s also invoked the supernatural and in doing so, weaved an unputdownable and unforgettable tale. Even better, he’s included and expanded upon one of the really fascinating characters from the first book, Gerlof (Julia’s father), gestured to many of the others we’ve already met (hinting at where their lives are now) and then extended the Öland cast with new ones.
This novel tells the tale of Katrine and Joakim Westin who uproot their small family (young daughter and son) from the outskirts of Stockholm when they purchase the old manor house at Eel Point, one of the more remote locations on the island. Formerly the light-keepers’ residence, within it’s now run-down walls and numerous rooms and outhouses, workers used to dwell, workers with their own histories and stories of loss and hardship to tell. Over the years, in fact, it’s been home to many different kinds of people, including, at one stage, Katrine’s non-conformist and artistic mother.
When tragedy strikes the Westins, Joakim is left to pick up what pieces he can. As winter falls over the island and storms threaten, the house starts to reveal some of its mysteries. Joakim is left with the sense that despite all the evidence to the contrary, he’s not alone and that the dreadful accident that’s befallen his family may not have been an accident after all…
In the meantime, robberies are taking place all over the island, and Gerlof’s great-niece has just been appointed as the new police officer. With loss of both lives and material goods happening all around her, particularly as Christmas approaches with the promise of dreaded and deadly blizzards, she has her work more than cut out; especially if the legends are true – the ones that speak of the dead returning on Christmas Eve….
This was such an atmospheric read, literally a haunting book that was beautifully constructed, managing to move seamlessly between past and present, rachetting up the tension with each chapter, dropping pieces of a jigsaw for the reader to slowly piece together.
It’s a sign of a masterful writer if you don’t see a major plot-twist coming (not that I really mind if I do; sometimes the joy in knowing also lies in seeing how the writer both creates and resolves it). As with the first book, I thoughtI predicted an outcome, but I was wrong. When the climax strikes, it’s easy to feel a bit like the older artist in the book, as if you’ve been blinded by a blizzard, only this time one comprised of words and feelings, and it’s not until you have time to catch your breadth, thaw from the tension a little, that the various pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place.
My only beef, and it’s certainly not the author’s fault, is that in the synopsis on Goodreads andAmazon and likely on the back of the book, a really poignant and significant plot point that occurs early on is spoilt. It doesn’t actually change the focus of the story that much toknow it, but I felt for the writer that he was so careful to obscure (again, the blizzard is a clever metaphor used cunningly in the book) a terrible reality, that it’s a pity the reader knows in advance what a character does not. While this can also be a very smart narrative device, I can’t but help feel this isn’t what the author intended. I think we’re meant to be as shocked as a specific character. As a consequence, I’m not repeating the story-line/twist here, despite the reveal elsewhere.
Overall, this was a wonderfully creepy, chilling (at every level) and deeply satisfying book that lovers of crime/thrillers/supernatural/family dramas would so enjoy and makes me long to continue with this Öland quartet.