Review of Blackwater, Kerstin Ekman
A poetic masterpiece
There’s something about Kerstin Ekman’s story about the village Blackwater and the barren nature surrounding it that touches me deep inside when reading it and I cannot really identify what it is. The atmosphere in the book is pressing, the feeling that something is wrong, very wrong grows stronger by the page and it reeks from each and every word. The river, the mire and the forest, there’s a tone loaded with anxiety surrounding the neighboring nature that reminds me of an old fairytale where magic lurks behind each and every corner. For that reason, Ekman would not surprise me if she for some reason would allow a troll or an elf to walk out from the bushes and catch somone unawares. Although they never show, I’m still convinced that they are out there and for some reason, I believe that some of the characters feel the same.
It’s Midsummer’s Eve and Annie and her young daughter Mia are on the way to the remote village of Blackwater, in the province of Jämtland in the northern part of Sweden. It’s 1974 and Annie, a teacher, has decided to leave her life in the city and move to her lover Dan in a small community outside the village. She has high expectations about the new life she’s hoping to find in the community, a part of the counter urbanization movement, where the small group of people are trying to live separated from modern society, with their farming and strong political opinions about solidarity, ecological thinking and socialism as the only source of livelihood. A fretting feeling inside of Annie tells her that Dan is not as trustworthy and loyal as she wants him to be, but she has decided that she need this change in her life, hence she pushes the feelings away and tries to focus on the future.
But as soon as they arrive to Blackwater, Annie realizes that something actually is wrong, really wrong. Dan is not waiting by the bus stand as he promised and as the evening changes into night, still almost as light as during the day, Annie becomes desperate and decides walk together with Mia up through the forest and over the mire to the small community farm. Only meeting one person on their walk and for some reason too scared to ask him for directions, she soon realizes they are lost. In the shadows, down by the river, Annie stumbles onto a small tent, torn in pieces and with traces of blood splashed on the ground.
The brutal double murder of the two unknown tourists shakes the small village and when no one is arrested for the crime, it affects the inhabitants more than they ever would have expected. Eighteen years later, Annie meets the man from that night again and the mire once again becomes dangerous to the people trying to pass through it…
“Blackwater” does not only focus on the brutal murder by the river, it also tells a story about a time when society changes, in particular in the rural areas, and how nature is being used in the name of progress. Ekman has caught the ambience of the 1970s very well; the naivety of the people living in the counter urbanization community, the rational and profit-minded forestry companies that come to clear-cut huge areas and leave the forest damaged and drained, as well as the despair that fills the inhabitants of Blackwater, something no one wishes to talk about, but still affecting them all. Slowly, the old community dies, depopulated and exhausted, leaving the few remaining residents with a feeling that they lost something essential through the years that passed, but they are not sure exactly what.
The hidden anguish of the main characters is so tangible that it seems real and when Kerstin Ekman searches deep into the soul of her creations, to make sure that she finds the small, paining thorn in their chests and pinches it, it hurts all the way through the pages, out in my by then almost-numb fingers and it gives me the shivers. Even though they are have sprung from her imagination, I’m scared to see what she finds when she digs around in their minds and what they will do when she’s done. She has made sure that the roughness of the landscape matches the minds of her villagers, being hunters and woodsmen, with cemented gender roles, and mainly focusing on the hunting and fishing, they are crisp and short-spoken, and their condition makes it hard for them to express their feelings, even if they wanted to after the author’s pinch.
With a poetic language and a story that catches you from the first page, Kerstin Ekman has managed to write a masterpiece in a league of its own.
Submitted: 15 juni 2012