“Yule Island” by Johana Gustawsson: mystery on a Swedish island
For the first time in her career, French writer Johana Gustawsson has drawn inspiration from her adopted homeland – Sweden – to set a novel. In The Island of Yule, newly released by Calmann-Levy, the action takes place on a small pedestrian island located a few minutes Stockholm penalty. On this island is a mysterious mansion, which is said to be haunted. The writer has imagined a blood-curdling thriller, where tragedies follow one another.
Art expert, Emma Lindhal, the heroine of the novel, must make an inventory of the goods of the Gussman family, the fourth wealthiest in Sweden.
She must go to the island of Yule and undertake the visit of each of the rooms of the family mansion, a place of bad reputation. And for good reason: a young woman was murdered on the estate years earlier and her murderer was never found.
Emma quickly realizes that her solitary work will take her weeks and weeks. She examines all the elements found in huge rooms where she hardly meets anyone. The Gussmans refuse to see her and have imposed strict schedules on her. Are they hiding something?
As she continues her work as a monk and, through surprising discoveries, tries to learn a little more about the mansion and its occupants, another young woman is found lifeless in the frozen waters.
Seize a place
Johana Gustawsson, in a telephone interview from Stockholm, where she lives with her Swedish husband and children, reveals from the outset that this is the first time that she has set a novel in Sweden.
“It was a novel, somewhere, necessary. This is the first novel I've written about where I live. The island is in front of my house. I really wrote about something that is part of my home and I think it is also to appropriate this place which, ultimately, is not mine. By making him a character in one of my books, I make him mine, I make him mine.”
The writer immersed herself in a different country, a different culture, a different language, after living for a while in London, where she met her husband. Shortly after arriving in Stockholm, a friend told her about a supposedly haunted mansion on an island near her home. “I changed the name of the mansion, but it really exists. It was built at the same time as the one in the novel, except that it is much more in ruins than the one I am describing. It's a mansion that was abandoned after a legal battle.”
“All the places I talk about are true. We can come to Sweden and visit them.” But the events she describes are not. “They came straight out of my twisted imagination!”
A chilling silence
At the suggestion of her friend, Johana Gustawsson therefore went see this haunted mansion and visited this walking island.
“You really feel like, as I say in the book, you are hugged by ghosts when you go up to this island. There's a silence that gives you goosebumps.”
“I've been there in the summer, and I've been back in the fall and winter, and you get that same feeling.. It's a beautiful island, with little red and yellow shacks as we imagine. In winter, with the frozen sea, it is sublime. But there is a silence… yet I am not a mystic, but it really scared me.”
Johana, expert in the art of maintaining an atmosphere of anguish and suspense, had a field day.
“I said to myself: there is something atmospheric, very strong. I have to write about this place.”
- Johana Gustawsson is a French writer married to a Swede.
- She made a name for herself on the international thriller scene in just three novels.
- Her Roy and Castells series was sold in 11 languages and is being adapted for television.
- She lives in Stockholm, Sweden.
- She really likes Roxanne Bouchard's novels.
“In the lower part of the park, at the back of the manor, nature expresses itself in an English garden with a poetry that the hand of man has not restrained. Björn opens the gate and enters the estate. I follow it by detaching myself from the trees with regret. I'm looking for the tree. The hanging tree.
Grandiose, but completely incongruous on this modest island, the building stands like the fiefdom of a lord surrounded by the shacks of his vassals . Four steps lead to the main entrance, a semi-circular perron mounted on a double staircase with colonnades dressed in ivy. Two knockers in the shape of lions decorate an austere wooden door.
Björn rings the doorbell hidden by the vegetation and we wait. The door opens after a few minutes on a man in his early forties.”