Albert Bonniers förlag, 2005. ISBN: 9100105279
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2005:2
Bonniers rightly describes this night-marish and haunting new novel by Anna-Karin Palm as “an existential thriller, a drama for six characters and a house”. In fact, there are times when the stately house itself seems to be a player in the drama, a seventh character exerting a powerful influence over the human protagonists. Just under two hundred pages in length, The Manor House is a chilling tale of rivalries, jealousies and passions: passions between people, but also lust for a beautiful old house. The central plot has the claustrophobic confinement of a chamber play, yet the action takes place against a disturbing backdrop of apparent civil war and the breakdown of social order in an unspecified place and time. In the opening scene, four famished and bedraggled figures, exhausted after walking for days and nights through plundered villages and pathless forest, stumble across a manor house, unlocked and apparently deserted. Its kitchen is stocked with food, its cellars with drink, its bedrooms with made-up beds and fresh clothes. They cannot resist its eerie, fairytale-like hospitality. Later they discover they have a hostess, the diminutive, immaculately elegant Marie von B. She needs help to run the place, and they need somewhere to live; it is to their mutual advantage to help each other. An inscrutable figure who seems to materialize whenever least expected and avoids answering their questions, Marie allocates them tasks in her house and grounds. Ambitious, clever Alex, who acts as if he is the leader of the group, is given the role of cook; restless, inquisitive Juri is to be a caretaker and general handyman; Ben, the firstperson narrator of the story, will tend the vegetable garden and glasshouses, and in his lack of experience will be aided by the moody and rebellious Leila, who will also clean the house. With numb gratitude they accept their tasks, seeming to agree to “forget” their recent traumas and mutual betrayals. But all is not what it seems in this strange paradise. The outwardly frail Marie is driven by a steely singlemindedness, and they dimly begin to realize how she is manipulating them. For four months, they exist in a kind of limbo. There is a disturbing contrast between the haven-like manor house and the glimpses of war, death and anarchy beyond. Through scattered comments from the protagonists, and Ben’s memories of earlier times, we start to piece together how the four were thrown together by events in one war-ravaged town, and forced to flee. Background details are minimal, the places identified only by initials. It seems to be an era of radios and motorbikes, and there are hints that the setting could be Scandinavian, but it could equally well be further south in Europe; one Swedish reviewer even thought it might be Russia. The country seems to be in a state of post-apocalyptic chaos, with bitter faction fighting raging between the government, the military and a shadowy army of rebels. Ben is haunted by feelings of lurking danger, but reaching the manor house feels like a homecoming to him. As he explores the house, his love for it grows; he longs to be at one with it. He becomes the lover of its mistress too, meeting her secretly in the attic or the little bathhouse down by the lake. Marie treasures the house too, and having no direct heirs, chooses Ben to inherit it. The unannounced arrival of Marie’s niece and heir Lily changes everything. Marie’s carefully laid plans are threatened, especially when the others discover that she murdered a former employee. In an oppressive climate of mutual hostility and suspicion, claim and counter-claim, the situation builds to a point of almost unbearable tension which the reader rightly feels must end in violent tragedy. Who will win the power struggle? When Alex is found dead next morning in suspicious circumstances, Ben notes that everybody, even himself, has a highly plausible motive for the crime. The Manor House is like a grimmer, far less cosy version of a traditional British country house murder mystery. It is also a psychologically penetrating exploration of small group dynamics and what can happen when the normal rules of society no longer apply. In tone and style it is a successful new departure for Anna-Karin Palm, her tautest and most compelling work yet.