Yule Island by Johana Gustawsson draws heavily on an almost visceral sense of place to create a simmering, creeping dread that draws the reader in and pulls them forward through the story.
Gustawsson is French by birth and now living in Sweden, and this fifth novel puts her current place of residence centre stage. The story revolves around art expert Emma Lindahl, who is asked to appraise a collection in the famous manor house of one of Sweden’s richest families. The house is on the island of Storholmen, a real-life, car-free island in the Stockholm archipelago, and the place comes with a handful of ancient rumours of scary goings on and a dark past.
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Gustawsson sets the scene wonderfully from the start, and there’s a gripping rural noir feel to Lindahl’s attitude towards the island and its inhabitants. When the body of a young woman is washed up on the shore, Lindahl is enlisted by visiting detective Karl Rosen to help in his investigation, all of it bringing back memories of another young woman who died on the island nine years previously.
All of this occurs in the cold winter months, the long dark nights adding to the sense of anxiety, as new discoveries along the way lead the pair into folk horror territory, with ancient Viking mythology and folklore coming to the fore.
This is all handled expertly by Gustawsson, whose consummate prose has won countless awards in her native France. A thread of dark humour runs through Yule Island, and the plotting is exemplary, with any twists or turns properly embedded in the structure, rather than pulling the rug out from under the reader.