It was its Swedish setting that attracted me to Alex Schulman’s The Survivors which came my way at a time when I was remembering holidays past, including one taken on the Gothenburg archipelago many years ago. It’s about a family who holiday every year at the same isolated lakeside cottage until, one summer, a dramatic incident means they never return. So far, so run-of-the-mill, you might think, but Schulman’s novel is so cleverly constructed that by its ending it left me quite taken aback.
Benjamin was in the middle of the backseat – that was his spot, because from there he could keep an eye on his parents, on the road, and on his brothers to either side
Benjamin is looking back at that summer as he and his two brothers prepare for a day which will end in a fight. Nils, Benjamin and Pierre haven’t seen much of each other since they became adults. Nils is the oldest, mercilessly teased by his brothers, or at least that’s how he remembers it. Pierre was pugnacious, perhaps a little chippy given his position as the youngest brother. Benjamin was the observer, the one who did his best to keep an eye on everyone else including his parents, given to drinking a few too many vodkas and squabbling, occasionally tussling physically. Their father loved to encourage competition between his boys, sending them on a swimming race that took them dangerously far out onto the lake, then apparently forgetting all about them. Fascinated by electricity, Benjamin enters a tiny substation close by, heedless of his brothers’ remonstrations, with devastating results. Two days after his mother’s death, he sets out on another swim with no endpoint in sight. Once rescued, he’s led by his therapist through his story which may not be quite the one he’s been telling himself for years.
This was his duty, to fix things so his family would talk to each other just like Mom and Nils were doing out there, so that they loved each other and everything was OK
Opening his novel dramatically with a fight, Schulman alternates the brothers’ preparations for scattering their mother’s ashes at the lakeside with Benjamin’s story, taking time to establish the dynamics of this family with small telling details. Benjamin’s narrative is full of vivid anecdotes of that summer, the brothers’ rivalries and his own anxiety about his parents and their relationship. He sees himself as the peacemaker, constantly on alert, but as his story spins out, questions arise as to how reliable his memories are. You won’t be surprised to hear there’s a revelation (nor that I’m not going to tell you what it is) but suffice to say I didn’t see it coming. By no means a thriller in the traditional sense, Schulman’s novel is quietly gripping. It’s his first to be translated, apparently, although I see he has a backlist.
Fleet: London 9780349726885 272 pages Hardback