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'They Will Drown' Isn't A Whodunit, It's A Who-Is-It?

We know that not every mystery is a whodunit. Some are how-did-they-do-its, others why-did-they-do-its, and so on. But in Johannes Anyuru's unusual speculative mystery They Will Drown in Their Mothers' Tears, the question revolves around the very identity of a young woman known as Nour. (The book was translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel.)

At first, we want to know why Nour would, wearing a suicide vest, turn her weapon on her co-conspirator Amin in the midst of their attempt to assassinate a political cartoonist at a Swedish bookstore. The resemblance to the 2015 attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is deliberate, and not simply because it's an unnerving scenario. Anyuru, born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and a Ugandan father, has long been concerned in his poetry with the universality of bigotry and ignorance. This, his fourth work of prose fiction, uses two main characters whose daily lives as Swedish citizens are upended through reactions to the bookstore shooting.

One character, the aforementioned Nour, may also be a Belgian woman named Annika Isagel, or a nameless Swedish-Muslim adolescent girl whose best friend Liat comes from Israel. With these and other details, Anyuru underscores the reality that even parallel worlds involve global connections. As our female protagonist travels through time, her counterpart is a male writer living in a present that predates the bookstore shooting, with a wife named Isra and a very young daughter. He's worried about remaining in Europe as an Islamic family.

Meanwhile, he's been called to interview a young woman interned in Tundra, a criminal psychiatric clinic situated "in the outskirts of the Ravlända district, about an hour's bus ride from Gothenburg." So close to civilization, yet so far: In the two years that have passed — for her — since the attack at the bookstore, Nour/Annika has been behind its walls, suffering from what the doctors claim is schizophrenia combined with psychotic episodes and hallucinations, but that she herself says results from some kind of time anomaly. Although her passport reads "Annika" and says she's from Belgium, she speaks no Flemish or French, only Swedish. Who is she? Where does she come from? Why would she have murdered the man she was aligned with when she could have carried out their deadly purpose?

In the version of Sweden Nour/Annika claims she's from, its onetime Scandinavian socialist strengths have been overtaken by xenophobic hatred. Any citizen can be declared an "Enemy of Sweden" and then confined to urban internment centers like the "Rabbit Yard," where she says she was raised. As the writer grapples with her wish for him to tell her story in some meaningful way, he also confronts the fact that her story cannot be meaningfully told. Yes, that's partially due to the time jumps and folds and collapses; if I can't remember all the language Anyuru uses for how time bends in this speculative world, that's because the speculative aspect is the least compelling part of the novel. Which isn't to say it's poorly done, or unimportant, but that the idea of undoing violence founders when confronted with the specter of hatred.

No matter what Nour/Annika and The Writer (if you will) do, their status as outsiders in Swedish society seems to doom them to suspicion and fear. "We had been born in Sweden without being Swedish, and that made us unreal," says Nour/Annika. "Only by dying would we become real again."

One motif in the book is of moths, those oft-collected and taxonomied insects; being pinned to the page is a form of death, too. When The Writer interviews the wounded cartoonist whose work was the object of the bookstore attack, he hears the man say "If death makes us human, what does art do, art which makes us immortal? ... Does it make us inhuman?"

Not if Johannes Anyuru has anything to say about it. Each of his characters feels real, whether experiencing friendship and delight or torture and death. If Nour/Annika believes that her time travel would have averted future hatred, well, she may or may not be correct. But the story she shares with The Writer unsettles him, moves him to change the course of his own life. It is up to each reader to decide if The Writer's decision will begin the cycle of hatred and violence again, or if it portends hope. They Will Drown in Their Mothers' Tears does its job best in speculating about how humans stuck in chronological time can learn from our own mistakes.

Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets@TheBookMaven.

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Bethanne Patrick