Review: The Quarry by Johan Theorin

The Quarry is the third of Johan Theorin’s quartet of seasonal novels set on the Swedish island of Öland. It is the beginning of spring now and 83 year-old retired sea captain Gerlof Davidsson has decided to leave the senior citizen’s home in which he has been living. He doesn’t want to watch any more of his friends wheeled slowly from the home after dying alone in the night and he wants to spend however many years he has left at home in his cottage in Stenvik. As he settles himself back into his cottage he reacquaints himself with those villagers he has known for ever and starts to meet his new neighbours. Although the Swedes don’t really come to Öland in any numbers until the summer, Gerlof is not alone. There’s Per Mörner who inherited his uncle’s cottage near the quarry which was once a source of employment for villagers but is now abandoned. We also meet Vendela Larsson and her husband Max. Vendela grew up on the island as the poverty-stricken daughter of a quarry worker but now she is the owner of one of the newly built luxury homes and she has come here with Max so that he can write his latest self-help book (using an astonishing three desks and a significant amount of Vendela’s expertise).

Per’s father Jerry has recently had a stroke and so when his house is burned down Per, reluctantly, brings him to Stenvik to recover. It seems that Jerry’s shady past might be catching up with him and Per feels compelled to investigate what might have happened even though his relationship with his father is strained to say the least. If nothing else though it will take his mind away from the awful reality of his daughter’s hospitalisation for an unknown illness. Per is a brilliant characterisations in which a full range of human experience and emotion is credibly depicted. We see his frustration at not being able to do anything for his daughter, his ambivalence over his father’s unsavoury career and current circumstances and his yearning to connect with his own son and not knowing quite how to achieve it.

Alongside this main story there are multiple threads which are expertly woven together in a way that demands you read on while the suspense becomes almost unbearable. Gerlof, who can never resist a puzzle, spends some of his time helping Per with his investigation but he also embarks, rather guiltily, on reading his wife’s old diaries that he was meant to have burned after she died. He learns about some of the events in her life that took place while he was away at sea for long stretches and which just adds to the mystery unfolding before us all. Gerlof is one of my favourite characters of all time I think, the kind of 80-something I aspire to be: intelligent, thoughtful and pragmatic about the hand life has dealt him.

As he did in The Darkest Room Theorin has incorporated mythical elements of local folklore into the book intelligently. This time it is the legend of the trolls who, according to Vendela’s father, lived under the quarry and the elves who lived in the nearby alvar (sparsely vegetated area). In the middle of the alvar is a stone which, as a child, Vendela was taught to leave offerings on top of if she wanted her wishes to be granted. Her successes as a young girl fuelled her life-long fascination with elves and when she returns as an adult she is once again drawn to the stone and its magical powers. In a lesser writer’s hands I think Vendela would have been an unbelievable caricature but in Theorin’s she is a beautiful, sad person who has used fantasy to cope with the harsh deal life has thrown at her.

As has been the case with the previous two novels of this series I was once again enveloped by the atmosphere Theroin, ably aided by his translator Marlaine Delargy, has created here. It didn’t feel like I was just reading about the island’s slow awakening from it’s harsh winter to spring: I lived through the lengthening days, the appearance of the first butterflies, the people getting to know each other and themselves. I loved every moment of this book from its first word to its excellent closing line. I loved the intrigue, the gamut of real human emotions on display, the way that the past was connected to the present in surprising ways, the people who compelled me to find out more about them and the dual meaning of the book’s title.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The Quarry has been reviewed at Falcata TimesMilo’s Rambles,  and The Nordic Bookblog,

I’ve reviewed the two earlier books of this series Echoes from the Dead and The Darkest Room

The only black mark I would give this (and I know it’s nothing to do with the author) is that the blurb on my copy of this book rather appallingly gives away a fairly major plot point that doesn’t occur until more than half-way through the book. Bad form.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 5/5
Translator Marlaine Delargy
Publisher Doubleday [2011]
ISBN 9780385619295
Length 409 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #3 in a quartet
Source I bought it

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This entry was posted in book review, Johan Theorin, Nordic Challenge 2011, Sweden. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Review: The Quarry by Johan Theorin

  1. Maxine says:

    Great review, Bernadette, mine is in draft but remarkably similar to yours! I totally agree about that stupid blurb, not only did it give away something that happened over half way through but it made the book seem to be about what it wasn’t.
    I started out not liking Per and Vendela much, it was amazing how the author gradually opened your eyes to them both. I loved everything about the book, though the thriller ending seemed slightly hasty, but that was less relevant to the emotions and sadnesses conveyed so well. Marvellous.

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  2. I agree that Per and Vendela had to grow on you, as I learned about their histories I warmed to therm both, very complex and credible in their failings and reactions to things.

    As always with a book I love I don’t feel I have done it justice in my ramblings, I should just be able to demand that people read it for themselves

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  3. Kathy D. says:

    I’m probably a minority of one but I wasn’t thrilled with The Darkest Room. I don’t like it when books have chapters about something that happened decades, centuries ago, as if that’s relevant. Referring to the past is fine. But I want to be in the present and deal with people now. (And I was probably among the last grumpy holdouts for Indridason to win last year’s Dagger.)
    But your review has sparked an interest in me and I will read this book if only to find out who Per and Vendela are, what they’re about, how are they complex, why does a reader dislike, then grow to understand them. All good points.

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  4. Maxine says:

    Well I think it’s a fine review, Bernadette, this book is about so many things, with so many layers, it is hard to encapsulate. Kathy, though this one does refer to to the past quite a bit, it is in present-day characters’ memories rather than, as in the Darkest Room, having sections set in the past. The Quarry way of doing it is more successful I think. It seems quite popular in the crime fiction I read from Scandinavia to feature chunks set in past (Lackberg’s The Stonecutter or Mankell’s Man from Beijing) but I don;’t find them at all believable, far too simplistic. The present-day parts seem far more subtle and credible.

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  9. NancyO says:

    Thanks so much for your review — I just finished this book myself, and really liked it. Theorin does the past well, but what I really like about his writing is how he sets you immediately into the atmosphere surrounding the novel. And you are so spot on about the range of emotions he conveys. Great review!

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    • Bernadette says:

      Thanks Nancy, and glad you liked the book. He’s such an interesting writer, although they’re connected I have felt that all his books have had a different feel to them.

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