Fridge magnetism

Paul Binding meets Kerstin Ekman, well-known in her native Sweden, dbuting here with a tale of myth, snow and murder wilderness
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The Independent Culture
KERSTIN EKMAN lives where Nature asserts itself at its most implacable and starkly impressive, in the northern Swedish province of Jmtland, close to the Norwegian border, in the landscape that is perhaps the true protagonist of her latest novel, Blackwater (Chatto & Windus, £9.95). It will be her first to come out in Britain, although she enjoys a large readership in her native country (her first book, a detective story, came out in 1959, when she was only 26). Blackwater, called after the lake that dominates the story, has not only been Kerstin Ekman's most successful book, winning the Nordic Council's Literature Prize for 1994, it contains and brings together the themes that have obsessed her throughout her distinguished career: the secrets with which society forces individuals to lead their lives; denial of the authenticity of women's experience; the latent destructive element in all human bonds; the power of Nature.

I made a night journey by train up to Jmtland's only city, stersund. The book's setting was vivid in my mind, for the writer clearly has a mediumistic relation to its marshes, lakes and streams, its forest and mountains, its seasonal movement from the ceaseless light of midsummer to the relentlessness of sub-Arctic winter. I arrive at stersund at 5.40am, to be met by the son of the storekeeper of Kerstin Ekman's village who will drive me to Valsjbyn, over an hour and a half away. It's mid-February; snow started to fall in October and is now between six and ten feet deep. The forest begins as soon as we have left stersund, and continues, seemingly impenetrable - broken by one township only - all journey long. Elk, reindeer and bear live in it, the young driver tells me. Here is one of Europe's last and most considerable wildernesses. Eventually we arrive in Valsjbyn, a place of only 100 or so inhabitants. Kerstin Ekman's house stands above the village, with wonderful views over lake and hills; higher mountains in Norway are ordinarily visible too, but snow-fall obscures them.

Some years ago, near the town of Gllivare (far to the north of Jmtland) two hitch-hikers were found murdered in their tent. The crime was never solved. Ekman had been living for some time with two pictures in her head, germs of stories, which she sensed related to one another. The first picture was of a young woman arriving with her small daughter in an unfamiliar landscape, the mountains rising before her. She is expecting to be met, but no one is there. The second image was of an adolescent boy being thrown down a deep well by his brothers and then slowly hauling himself out, to realise that he must run away from home and oppression. He thumbs a lift over the border into Norway, and his driver is an older woman, an "anti-mother", a dangerous but liberating seductress.

Then one day Kerstin Ekman was walking near her home, by the stream that flows into the lake, and saw a small blue tent erected so near the running water that its occupants would have been unable to hear any approaching footsteps. A lifelong camper herself, she was immediately filled with a sense of unease - and shortly afterwards the unifying event of the novel came to her. Two young people, outsiders, would be murdered in such a tent, and one of them would be a "Wanderer" figure out of archetypal mythology, carrying with him a rat in a cage, to be found later beside his hacked body.

The connections were now clear. The young mother would discover the murdered hikers shortly after her bewildered arrival in Jmtland; she would see running past her, with agitation on his face, the young man, Johan, who'd just released himself from the well, and, alarmed by his dark Sami (Lappish) looks, would assume him to be the murderer - a wholly mistaken assumption which she will carry in her mind for almost two decades, with multiple tragic consequences.

It was only after she'd begun work on the novel that Kerstin Ekman realised the similarity of her imagined crime to that notorious one in Gllivari (and already she'd made her victims Dutch, as they'd been in reality, members of an urban society utterly ignorant of the primordial). "I do believe," she told her husband, Brje, "that I'm writing a detective story again."

She who had once been called Deckardrottning (Queen of the Detective Story) had said good-bye to the genre with the formally ambivalent Pukehornet (Devil's Horn) of 1967. But Blackwater is also far more than a detective story, addressing itself to both the intellect and the heart. The elaborate inter-relationships between its various components add up to a peculiarly rich metaphorical whole. The characters are complex, multi-faceted, irreducible beings, mysteries, and as part of the greater mystery that is Nature itself.

"The paths of the forest," Kerstin Ekman says, "are like veins in a body, seemingly alike to the novice, but to those who know them each is significant, a reminder and a conductor of experience." Blackwater revolves round the contrasts between insiders and outsiders in this remote stubborn land, yet virtue is not neatly apportioned to one side or the other.

The woman and her small daughter, Annie and Mia, come to the Blackwater region on Midsummer Eve 1974 to join a commune, Starhill, and her new lover, Dan. His irresponsibility - and behind it that of the whole ill- assorted bunch - is amply revealed in his failure to meet her. So when Annie makes her horrifying discovery of the murder, she has no support. Joan Tate has brilliantly rendered the argot of the commune's half-baked idealism. It stands convicted of dishonesty: pretending to have no connection with or obligation to the larger world, while in fact being parasitically dependent on it.

The whole community is rendered in depth: Birger the doctor, ke the policeman, Ola the con-man, and Johan's half-brothers, who, says the author, belong to a now perhaps sexually obsolescent group: males smelling of elk blood and engine oil, who take women like rapists, to receive back no transforming love.

A "no-sayer" to Europe in Sweden's recent referendum, Ekman worries about the decline of villages such as hers, about the future of a wilderness region like Jmtland. She talks too of issues of the outer world - of her own father's life, a fervent anti-Nazi who never knew the involvement of his firm in Swedish wartime collusion with the Third Reich, of her own (officially unrecognised) resignation from the Swedish Academy over its refusal to take a firm stance over Salman Rushdie and the fatwa, and her present involvement with the Rushdie Support Committee in which Norway and Sweden are playing so vital a part.

When I leave she is anxious that I should see an elk on my way back to stersund and the Stockholm-bound train. Carl-Gunnar takes a different route, along another icy road through snowbound forest. After an hour we are rewarded; an elk jumps onto the roadway, a gentle-visaged creature redolent of quietness and yet potentially dangerous - a symbol, you might say, of Kerstin Ekman's fiction.