Seventeen-year-old Ellen Blind travels to Svartjokk, a small town in northern Sweden, with her brother Simon, a 14-year-old with Aspergers and obsession with detective stories. They’re on a holiday arranged by their parents, who claim that the siblings should bond, visit the birthplace of their late grandfather, Lars-Erik, and discover their Sami roots. Ellen, though, knows that her parents also want them out of the way so they can sort out their marital problems.
The holiday turns upside down when the siblings discover reindeer heads in the forest. Simon’s findings at the scene suggest the reindeer have been poisoned. Frustrated with the police’s lack of interest, Simon is determined to find the perpetrator. Ellen reluctantly helps him. investigation takes them to the local Sami village and the owner of the dead reindeer, Per-Anders Thomasson. It turns out that Per-Anders knows far more about the Lars-Erik’s past than the siblings did, and the more they learn, the more Ellen suspects that the reindeer killing is somehow connected to their grandfather. Embers of the past rarely burn out. (Synopsis)
Embers is a book of many threads. Through the core story of a mysterious ritualistic slaughter of a reindeer herd, other themes emerge and bend around this main narrative. Ellen and Simon are the youngsters at the centre of the story, motivated in part by Simon’s love of detective mysteries but also by a sense of injustice as the local police fail to take their discovery seriously.
Before long, the siblings are facing serious opposition from all sides in a town that is isolated enough that pretending something never happened is a survival mechanism. For the story to fully unpeel, everyone will need to face the truth sooner or later.
The characters feel like they belong to the pines, lakes, and small towns of Sweden’s North. The scenery is vividly real, and each location is brought to life with strong descriptive writing. There are insights into the many cultures that collide and the characters are suitably complex and not overplayed. In particular, Per-Anders is a well sculpted person who anchors the story firmly in place as the events unfold with his stoic ‘it’s how it is’ statements and his cautious consideration of responses to Simon and Ellen’s questions.
This story is detective fiction, but also a dramatic family story, and a commentary on ecological and social issues. Despite packing so much into one debut novel, it’s a hugely successful piece of writing that keeps things interesting from start to finish.