Review: To Mervas, by Elisabeth Rynell

Marta has lived a life of hardship, abuse, and self-imposed solitude.  One day, seemingly out of nowhere, she receives a letter from Kosti, her one and only love.  She has neither seen nor heard from him in over twenty years, and his short letter tells very little except that he is now living in Mervas, in a remote part of Sweden.  This awakens long-suppressed feelings:

I knew that the letter I’d received wasn’t much of a letter, but still, the few words he’d written were alive inside me … They’d reminded me of my life and the fact that I was still living it, that I was supposed to live it.  I’d forgotten that.  (p. 6)

Marta quickly decides to go off in search of Kosti, but is almost immediately gripped by fear.  She is forced to examine and piece together events from her past, which include witnessing her father’s repeated abuse of her mother, and giving birth to a severely disabled child who later died.  She tries to come to terms with how these experiences sent her into a life of isolation:

And my thoughts have not been fluffy memories or daydreams of the boy. … It has even struck me that there are similarities between the writing I’ve begun and an archaeological excavation.  The carefulness. You have to be so incredibly careful with the things you find down there. They may for example be positioned in a specific order in relation to one another that mustn’t be changed.  Or they may be fragile and crumble at the slightest touch.  (p. 44)

When summer arrives, Marta is finally ready to make the journey to Mervas.  Her journey is slow and careful, and as she approaches her destination she is both attracted to and repelled by Mervas.  And as she makes her journey, the reader is slowly made aware of the full weight of Marta’s life experiences.  Elisabeth Rynell’s prose is spare and yet poetic, and the emotional reveal is a bit intense.  This is a very short book, but not an easy one to read.  The enjoyment comes not from the characters or plot, but from Rynell’s ability to convey a sense of loneliness and desperation and the promise of something better for Marta.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 5

Review: Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankell

Kurt Wallander is a middle-aged Swedish police detective working in the town of Ystad.  He’s recently divorced, and estranged from his only daughter.  In the midst of these emotional struggles he suddenly finds himself investigating the brutal murder of an elderly farmer and his wife. Before her death, the wife repeatedly uttered a single word:  “foreign.”  Shortly after the double murder, a Somali man is killed at a refugee camp.  It’s up to the police team to determine whether the murders are linked, and the significance of the dead woman’s last words.

Wallander and his crew conduct a thorough investigation, learning more about the elderly farmer’s life and some personal secrets that offer clues.  There’s a fair amount of criminal-stalking, chase scenes, and drama.  But about 2/3 of the way through this novel, the story’s pace flags and the investigative team seems to wander about aimlessly.  And then, just as suddenly, everything is solved and neatly tied up in a bow.

This novel is the first in a series of Wallander mysteries.  I enjoyed the 2008 Wallander dramatizations starring Kenneth Branagh, which are adaptations of later books.  I wanted to read this book before more episodes — including Faceless Killers — air on PBS this autumn.  It might just be this particular storyline, but this book did not live up to the drama and excitement of the TV series.

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