Blog tour: Yule Island by Johana Gustawsson, translated by David Warriner

Yule Island

This post is part of a blog tour organised by Random Things Blog Tours. I received a free copy of the book in return for an honest review.

‘Art expert Emma Lindahl is anxious when she’s asked to appraise the antiques and artefacts in the infamous manor house of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, on the island of Storholmen, where a young woman was murdered nine years earlier, her killer never found.

‘Emma must work alone, and with the Gussman family apparently avoiding her, she sees virtually no one in the house. Do they have something to hide?

‘As she goes about her painstaking work and one shocking discovery yields clues that lead to another, Emma becomes determined to uncover the secrets of the house and its occupants.

‘When the lifeless body of another young woman is found in the icy waters surrounding the island, Detective Karl Rosén arrives to investigate, and memories of his failure to solve the first case come rushing back. Could this young woman’s tragic death somehow hold the key?

‘Battling her own demons, Emma joins forces with Karl to embark upon a chilling investigation, plunging them into horrifying secrets from the past – Viking rites and tainted love – and Scandinavia’s deepest, darkest winter…’

Yule Island

In Yule Island, by Johana Gustawsson, antiques appraiser Emma Lindahl is tasked with valuing the collection of the super-rich Gussman family.

Commuting between her apartment in metropolitan Stockholm and the Gussmans’ manor house on the secluded island of Storholmen, Emma befriends the couple who pilot the boat that runs between the mainland and the islands, as well as a local café proprietor, but the wealthy family themselves keep their distance.

When Emma discovers an alarming message hidden in a silver-backed hairbrush, she begins to wonder whether the mysterious Gussmans had something to do with the unsolved murder of a young woman on the island nine years previously.

Meanwhile, another dead young woman has recently been found in the waters of the archipelago, presented in a similar way to the first victim. Detective Karl Rosén, who worked on the original case, is determined not to let the opportunity to find answers slip away again.

Karl and Emma make for natural allies in their pursuit of the truth, which takes them down a number of chilling, unexpected paths.

Having enjoyed The Bleeding last year, I’d been looking forward to reading more from Johana Gustawsson. While Yule Island is quite different to its predecessor in terms of subject matter and location, I was pleased to find it just as compelling, pacey, and genre-defying.

Much of Yule Island’s gripping, addictive nature stems from the author’s inarguable talent for unreliable narration. The story is told from the first-person points of view of three characters – Emma, Karl, and a housekeeper named Viktoria – and all three withhold vital information from the reader until the point of maximum effect.

This results in a few “wait, what?!” moments, where everything you thought you knew so far is turned on its head, and you’re compelled to keep reading in order to reassess what’s going on.

One of the three narrators is deliberately deceptive in ways the others aren’t, and after that became apparent, I felt quite discombobulated, and handled everything they did or said with caution for much of the rest of the book.

In fact, disguise is a theme the story explores more widely. A notable number of characters turn out to have alter egos.

For Emma’s papyrologist/drag queen friend Lulu, it’s an additional expression of himself that he’s open about and revels in. In other cases, though, characters adopt different personas to maliciously deceive others, or through no choice of their own.

Given the Swedish setting, and the inclusion of a troubled detective investigating particularly dark murder cases, it’s no surprise that Yule Island has major Nordic Noir vibes. This was something I really appreciated.

I always love reading vivid descriptions of the scenery in Scandinavian countries, especially if the story takes place at the height of winter. Not only was I absorbed by Gustawsson’s portrayals of the bustling city and quiet island, but the contrast between the two makes Storholmen appear all the more eerie and atmospheric.

In common with The Bleeding, this novel has a lot of Gothic features, which I loved. There’s a big, complicated house with rooms nobody’s touched for decades, creepy discoveries inside old things, disturbed characters with intense relationships, even a hidden tunnel or two… all things that especially enthrall me.

I also thought the way the author used Norse mythology was creative and inspired. Without giving too much away, some residents of the manor house are obsessed with it, and certain elements of it come to twist their worldview and shape their actions.

Yule Island is gripping, atmospheric, and continually surprising.

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About Alice Violett

Writer of blogs and short stories, reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK