Falkenberg, Sweden. The mutilated body of talented young jewellery designer, Linnea Blix, is found in a snow-swept marina. Hampstead Heath, London. The body of a young boy is discovered with similar wounds to Linnea’s. Buchenwald Concentration Camp, 1944. In the midst of the hell of the Holocaust, Erich Hebner will do anything to see himself as a human again. Are the two murders the work of a serial killer, and how are they connected to shocking events at Buchenwald? Emily Roy, a profiler on loan to Scotland Yard from the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, joins up with Linnea’s friend, French true crime writer Alexis Castells, to investigate the puzzling case. They travel between Sweden and London, and then deep into the past, as a startling and terrifying connection comes to light…

Carefully weaving together the feel of Nordic noir, the heightened emotional sensitivity of French fiction, an unflinching reprisal of the darkest days of WW2, and the hunt for a serial killer, Block 46 proves itself an utterly compelling and harrowing read. Already the recipient of two prestigious writing prizes, Johana Gustawsson artfully balances these contrasting strands throughout, taking the reader on a journey to the darkest recesses of the human psyche…

For the purposes of my review, I will not dwell too extensively on the plot, for as readers this will unfold and immerse you with its beautifully connecting strands at a more than satisfying pace. What held me totally in its thrall, and exhibits so perfectly Gustawsson’s craft as a writer is her placing of her characters under extreme pressure, and their will to survive, and their resilience in these conditions. Obviously drawing on her own personal, familial history, the scenes centred on the  Buchenwald camp in the midst of the Holocaust, are perhaps the most conscious example of this with the focus on the story of Erich Ebner. As he navigates the fragile line between life and death in the inhumane and brutal conditions of Buchenwald, we observe a man who seeks to keep his humanity, and survive this torturous daily existence. He becomes inveigled with Doktor Fleischer in Block 46 ‘the antechamber to death’ a place of grim experimentation , where the reader is confronted with the harsh realities of Fleischer’s madness, but allows Ebner some safe passage through the unrelenting cruelty of life in Buchenwald. These sections of the book, and how they resonate in the contemporary timeline,  more than any other cause us to question not only Ebner’s motivations for survival, but to a degree if we could make the same decisions, and denial of our own moral compass to survive. I like the way that Gustawsson keeps this deliberately ambiguous, allowing her readers to step into this space, and to question themselves in the light of Ebner’s actions.  For me this unflinching portrayal of life in Buchenwald, and how it impacts so dramatically on the contemporary plot was exceptional in both its composition and description, testing the reader, and daring us to both look away, but also to question ourselves. The writing is never less than powerfully understated and intuitive, drawing us into a moral maze of psychological darkness.

This theme of survival and resilience is also played out to a lesser extent certainly, but as effectively, in Gustawsson’s contemporary female protagonists, criminal profiler Emily Roy and true crime writer Alexis Castells. Both women have lives touched by events or personal traits that have hampered their connection with others, with both exhibiting coping strategies to navigate the worlds they move in. Castells has been subject to a personal loss, which has sparked her career delving into the lives of people touched by brutal crime themselves, and as much as she inhabits this world so professionally and objectively, has found herself closed down from emotional personal relationships. Emily Roy, on the other hand is as removed from others by her single-mindedness and unique character traits which fit her chosen profession as a criminal profiler perfectly, but again sees her isolation from responding to others on a more emotional level. I liked the way that Gustawsson ascribed these women with this equal feeling of isolation, and how their seeming points of difference, are in fact so strikingly similar, and greatly enjoyed how these were explored in the course of this testing investigation.

There is a real feeling of all things to all people about Block 46, particularly for readers who like to be challenged and confronted with the less than unpalatable truths of human morality. The subtle weaving of powerful emotion, murderous intent and the tracking of a deranged killer, all underscored by Gustawsson’s influence of French and Scandinavian fiction, all co-exists and blends perfectly into a brave and beautifully realised book. Disturbing and compelling, Block 46 is an intensely unique read. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda for the ARC)

 

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