Small towns, castles, close-knit community, folklore and legend … throw all that at me and I’m happy! And this book has all of this by the truckload! Add in the obligatory secrets, lies, old friends and wariness of anyone who is ‘different’ and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a slow-burning, spine-tingling thriller.
In Rites of Spring, the small town in question is Skåne, more specifically, the village of Tornaby in the district of Bokelund in Sweden. Dr Thea Lind is moving into the area with her husband David, who grew up there. David is going to be opening a Michelin star restaurant, together with 2 of his close childhood friends and the assistance of the Bokelund Foundation which is incidentally headed up by David’s formidable mother Ingrid, who controls much of what goes on in Bokelund. While he’s doing that, Thea is going to be taking over as the town doctor. It all sounds very perfect and homey, doesn’t it? The successful restaurant manager returning home to create something the locals can be proud of, together with his wife, a doctor who’s been working with Médecins sans Frontières, no less! It’s a story the entire town can take ownership and be proud of.
But from the start it’s obvious that things are not as rosy as they seem. A dark cloud hangs over the castle where the intended restaurant will open. In 1986 the castle was occupied by tenants who did not quite ‘fit’ with the rest of the village. A family who were considered to be gypsies were living there. They kept themselves separate from everyone, going about their illusive business, and causing concern as to what exactly it was they were up to. There was also a beautiful 16-year-old girl who was part of this family: young, flighty, flirty too. She caught everyone’s attention … and on Walpurgis Night of 1986, she was murdered … “The Spring Sacrifice”. Walpurgis Night is the night before May Day, when bonfires are lit to ward off evil spirits and the ‘Green Man” who is said to ride through the forest looking for a pretty young maiden to be his sacrifice. Soon after this tragedy, the rest of the family left the castle and it’s remained empty ever since. The people of the town prefer not to speak of the incident, leaving it in the past where it belongs.
Almost as soon as she arrives, Thea feels uncomfortable in Tornaby. Although the patients she sees seem to take to her quite well and are open to the idea of a new doctor, she feels the rippling undercurrent of something unpleasant in the air. She keeps seeing handmade ‘Green Men’ everywhere as Walpurgis Night is approaching. And then she discovers the story of the spring sacrifice and it brings back uncomfortable memories of her own upbringing. She is even more disturbed when she learns of her own husband’s connection to the events back in 1986, and resolves to find the truth of what happened that night.
Told in alternate timelines, and with each of Thea’s chapters opening with short paragraphs where she speaks to someone named ‘Margaux’ the story took me some time to get into and figure out. I also found there were a lot of characters to sort through. The slow-burn aspect didn’t help in this regard and I felt that it was possible that if things had been speeded up a bit, I might have figured it all out a lot quicker. I didn’t warm to any of the main characters and didn’t find them all that likeable, but I don’t think that this is necessarily detrimental to the plot (in fact, sometimes unlikeable characters make for better storytelling). For me, what lends itself to the intrigue of this book is all the information about Swedish myths and fables. I’m fascinated with the folklore and traditions that bind people together as a community – even more so when they live in tight, close-knit groups, as they do here in the town that the author has created. This theme running so consistently through the book made it a 4-star read for me.
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