Tag Archives: Swedish fiction

After the Fire: Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell’s After the Fire is the Swedish author’s final novel. After the Fire is a far cry from the Wallander crime series, and yet the novel, which at times conveys a strange dream-like quality also concerns crimes. This time, however, the emphasis is on aging and coming to terms with one’s life and actions.

69-year-old retired surgeon Fredrik Wellin lives on an island in the house that used to belong to his grandparents. Fredrik lives a solitary life, and he likes it that way. His only regular visitor is the postman, Jansson, and Fredrik’s daughter, Louise, who keeps her father at arm’s length, occasionally comes to visit. Independent and private, she stays in her caravan which was moved to the island on a cattle ferry. Fredrik suffers from high blood pressure, worries about his heart, and self-medicates. Perhaps some of Fredrik’s desire for solitude can be explained by his retirement which occurred in disgrace: he amputated the wrong arm of a young woman. And so he returned to the island, to the house in which he was born, to live out his days until his death.

After the Fire

Asleep one night, Fredrik is woken up by a bright light. Realizing that his house is on fire, he manages to escape grabbing two left boots on the way out of the door. The house is completely destroyed, and Fredrik, who moves into his daughter’s caravan, soon finds himself suspected of arson. Suddenly his life isn’t private anymore.

After the Fire is not a fast-paced novel. Mankell takes his time unpacking his story, building slowly on atmosphere, events in the area’s harsh past, and strange, eerie events. Even a childhood excursion when Fredrik went fishing with his grandfather evokes memories of his grandfather bludgeoning a swimming deer. Fredrik’s island is near a former fishing, now summer resort town, and the story takes place when the visitors have left and just the locals remain. The locals are a strange bunch: including the mysterious Oslovski, a woman with a glass eye who claims to be Polish and then later became a Swedish citizen.

Sometimes she disappeared for several months and then one day she would be back. As if nothing had happened. She moved around like a cat in the night. 

Most of the characters in the book are strange, and this raises the question: do strange people move to this area to escape the burden of suburbia, or do they become strange in this remote, harsh landscape? A bit of both, I suspect. The landscape is unforgiving: bitter winds, the sea that freezes only to crack and swallow unfortunate victims in the shallows, the perch have disappeared, the quarries have closed. Nature is relentless and unbeatable:

I drove down a steep hill, and then the trees began to thin out. I passed a few houses by the side of the road; some were empty, dilapidated, while others were perhaps still occupied. I stopped the car again  and got out. No movement, not a sound. The forest had crept right up to the houses, swallowing the rusty tools. the overgrown meadows. 

One of the only ‘normal’ characters here is the attractive newspaper reporter, Lisa Modin, and before long, Fredrik has designs on this woman, decades his junior, designs, which while incongruous on one level, also show his loneliness and desire for female companionship.

Fredrik’s daughter, the prickly Louise, a daughter whose existence he only learned of when she was an adult, arrives on the island, and while the traditional role would be for her to help her father pick up the pieces of his life, her short stay only brings friction and raises some uncomfortable questions.

After the Fire is an interesting, and at times slow, melancholy read. We land in the book at the end of Fredrik’s life, and pieces of information are gradually parceled out, so that we put together the puzzle of Fredik’s psychology. He acknowledges feeling remorse for chopping off the wrong arm of a patient, but add to that picture his wife, Harriet “who made her way across the ice using her wheeled walker, some years go” and who died on the island. Add a father who wasn’t told that he had a daughter until that child grew into adulthood. Then add the bizarre relationship between Fredrik and Louise–at one point he spies through the caravan window while his daughter is half dressed as if catching her in a private moment will reveal the secrets of her life that she refuses to share. Through the story Henning Mankell argues for the relentless of Nature and our human attempts to subvert it, and yet there’s another strain here: the immutability of human nature.

Review copy

translated by Marlaine Delargy

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Filed under Mankell Henning, Fiction

Quicksand: Malin Persson Giolito

School shootings have become a sickening reality, and in Quicksand, Swedish author Malin Persson Giolito explores such an incident through the eyes of Maya, an 18-year-old girl who’s accused of aiding and abetting her boyfriend murder several people. The novel opens in the aftermath of the crime with Maya cradling the dead body of boyfriend, Sebastian Fagerman amidst the corpses of her friends. Then the story moves to the trial.

At issue here is the subject of complicity. Did Maya plot with Sebastian? How much did she know of his intentions? Maya admits shooting her boyfriend Sebastian and her best friend, Amanda. How could Maya have murdered her best friend, and yet did she really like Amanda?

Amanda was spoiled, of course, she was–by her mom, her dad, her therapist, and the person who took care of her horse. But it wasn’t just about clothes and gadgets. It was something else. She had the same attitude towards her parents, her teacher–all authorities, including god–that she did toward people in the service industry, like they were all concierges at a luxury hotel. 

As the trial opens and Maya is prepped by her lawyers, we see the events unfold in the courtroom through Maya’s eyes. This is a teenage girl who is largely disaffected and who views the adult world with disdain. Maya’s affluent parents have hired the best defense lawyer money can buy, and Maya has nothing but scorn for the two “helper attorney[s],” secretly mocking them in her head.

Quicksand

While the trial unfolds, Maya goes back in time to the beginnings of her relationship with Sebastian Fagerman, the son of “the richest man in Sweden.” Sebastian held wild parties with limitless drugs at his home, and indeed Sebastian’s life, complete with yachts and private jets is not enviable but a gilded nightmare of instability–a fact that Maya inevitably struggles with.

Quicksand effectively shows how a teenage girl got into a situation that she was unable to deal with. Maya’s parents are too awed by the Fagerman reputation to be other than delighted that Sebastian is dating their daughter. When things turn sour, Maya is so isolated and immature, she is unable to connect with anyone outside of her nightmare situation. Her disaffectedness makes her seem tough, but breakthrough that, and she’s actually quite brittle. In Maya, author Mallin Persson Giolito creates a not-particularly-likable teenage girl who thinks she knows all the answers and who feels superior to all adults. While most of her thoughts seemed to fit with those of an arrogant 18 year old privileged girl, occasionally, very occasionally, some of her thoughts did not. Maya has the habit of latching onto the words of adults as an inauthentic, meaningless ‘speak.’ Everyone, according to Maya, “has such a difficult time saying what they mean in plain language,” and yet isn’t she guilty of the same thing?

What a typical teacher answer: “that’s an excellent question …” “I hear what you’re saying…” “It’s not black and white…” “It’s not that simple …” Those kinds of answers all mean the same thing: they have no idea what they’re talking about.

But fine, If it’s difficult to know what’s true and who’s lying, if you can’t be sure, then what do you do?

While the setting, mood and atmosphere are excellent here, the details of the past bog down the narrative–say for example when Maya presents (in her head) 4 alternative ‘after the party’ scenarios. I went back and forth feeling sympathy and dislike for Maya. At times, it’s easy to see how this teenager was forced to cope with scenarios that were way beyond her maturity level, but at other times I was out of patience with her. Underlying the plot there’s a strong undercurrent of privilege. How do parents who raise their children to think they’re ‘special’ and above the herd, manage to eradicate arrogance and superficiality? How do you teach the children of the cossetted ultra-rich? How to teach the degradation of poverty? The humiliation of need?

Review copy

Translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles

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Filed under Fiction, Giolito Persson Malin

The White City: Karolina Ramqvist

Karolina Ramqvist’s moody novel, In the White City, takes us into the life of a young woman named Karin who finds herself in a life she never imagined. When the novel opens, Karin is living in a huge lakeside home bought for her by her criminal boyfriend, John. John is gone, presumably (?) in prison and Karin, feeling bitter and betrayed, is left with their baby Dream, the child that John pushed for against Karin’s nagging feelings that having a family was not a wise move.

Karin, alone in the rambling house with just the baby, has just a few days before she is to be evicted. The utilities have been cut off and the house is freezing. She has nowhere to go, the little cash she has is running out, and the friends she thought she had from John’s criminal gang have evaporated when times got tough. The police and the tax authorities have documented the house’s contents and Karin faces a crisis that she is completely unprepared for.

the-white-city

This is a short novel, moody and depressing which nonetheless manages to incorporate a dreamlike quality into its style. This is a white world (as the title suggests). The house is cold and unwelcoming, and it’s surrounded by a frozen world of snow and ice, but there’s also a sense of blankness in Karin’s mind. She’s stunned by events and unable to cope.

Karin reaches out to a number of people for help–some of whom appear sympathetic and some who do not. Meanwhile she lives in a haze of depression, foraging in the house for food, and neglecting her baby.

The book’s blurb mentions “the coke-filled parties, seemingly endless flow of money, and high social status she previously enjoyed.” Scant reference exists of Karin’s former life, and I would have enjoyed knowing a bit more. When the book opens, everything has changed and not seeing how things were before, gives us little point of contrast, little point of loss. I was reminded of series 1 of Prisoners’ Wives and the glory stripped from Francesca Miller, but in that series we see Francesca’s fall from affluence each step of the way. Francesca finds her own worth in the series, tries to work a ‘normal’ job only to be dragged back in the Life. In The White City, it’s the aftermath of the party and Karin is left with the mop-up.  There’s no such character development here–just a woman floundering in hopelessness.

The novel is strongest when describing the police who visit the house and deliver the news that Karin must leave:

And then they moved deeper inside the house. With quiet purpose. Greedily. Even if this was a purely routine call, they approached their plunder with an ill-concealed excitement. They stared in hot silence through her dirty windows, drinking in the view. Her view. They turned around and stared at the fireplace; its little white remote control was on the coffee table even though the gas had run out and it could no longer be lit. They looked at the painting on the far wall, her painting, the one she’d assumed was stolen when John gave it to her.

They had already sent an appraiser around, who’d gone through everything.

The descriptions of the landscape are excellent, and while the novel’s mood and atmosphere are well created, there’s just too many endless references to breast feeding that added nothing to the story, nothing to the plot. Karin is still in shock, her senses dulled and blunted. All this is conveyed well, but it is continual and after a while (and a visit from the Pizza guy) we realise that Karin must stop wallowing in the mess that landed on her doorstep and come to her senses. We get tiny glimpses (and I wish there had been more) into Karin’s former life–the bullet proof glass in the lakeside house, for example. Details of Karin’s former life infuse energy into this otherwise bleak, depressing tale:

Everything had been documented, every one of her purchases, each step she’d taken, or so it seemed. Pictures of her on airplanes and at the watchmaker. Tickets to Thailand and Brazil, gym memberships, dermatologists, timepieces, jewelry, cars. boats. The dog and the horse each had their own column.

Review copy

Translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel

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Filed under Fiction, Ramqvist Karolina

Willful Disregard: Lena Andersson

“It’s all about manipulating the recipient into feeling what you want them to feel.”

In Swedish author Lena Andersson’s novel, Willful Disregard, thirty-one-year-old Ester Nilsson, freelance writer, a “poet and an essayist” is asked to give a paid lecture on artist, Hugo Rask, a man “rated highly for his moral fervor in a superficial age.” Through her research, she begins to feel a strong interest in Rask, “her sense of affinity with its subject grew,” and when she meets him that interest blossoms into a strong attraction. From the very beginning, Ester confuses Rask’s “frequently quoted assertions,” as an artist “obsessed with morality in his work,” and his apparent sensitivity with the flesh and blood man.

Ester, who has led a fairly quiet and sheltered life, is in a “quiet, harmonious relationship with a man who left her in peace while satisfying her physical and mental needs,” and unfortunately, she’s never met a man like Rask before. After the lecture, Rask approaches Ester, grabs her hands, kisses her cheeks and tells her:

No outsider has ever understood me so profoundly and precisely.

A more experienced woman would probably regard Rask’s comment with suspicion, but from that moment on, Ester is a goner…

Willful disregard

Unfortunately for Ester, she can’t stop thinking (or talking) about Rask.  She thinks she can “develop a friendship with Hugo, an elective affinity.” She tells a friend about Rask and says, “we’ve made contact at a deep level and we’re going to be friends.” Consequently, Ester’s friends and acquaintances realize she’s falling in love before she does:

Before you understand where the emotion is going to lead, you talk to anyone and everyone about the object of your love. All of a sudden, this stops. By then the ice is already thin and slippery. You realize that every word could expose your infatuation. Feigning indifference is as hard as acting normally, and fundamentally the same thing.

Ester takes a casual invitation from Rask seriously and begins hanging around his studio which also serves as his home. Although the warning signs are flashing that she’s one of several women in Rask’s life, she thinks they have something ‘special.’  A few texts from Rask later, and she’s losing weight and ignoring her partner of 13 years.

As the plot spins out, there’s Ester, a woman who’s a stranger to casual sex, convinced that she has this special connection with Rask–after all Rask, himself, even said that. Rask, who maintains a coterie of worshippers, is a slippery character, and even though the story is told in the third person, with its necessarily limited point of view, it becomes screamingly obvious that Ester is the only one interested in a relationship.

This is the story of an obsessive relationship. Ester doesn’t even get the courtesy of a brush off–her life is full of unanswered texts and unreturned phone calls, but there’s some quirk to Ester’s personality that will not allow her to walk away with dignity. Most women would, I think, get the message. Instead Ester, infected with “the malarial love itch that is always latent once it has invaded the cells,” conjures up the notion that “there was something holding him back. Perhaps there were unknown obstacles.” She frequently consults “the girlfriend chorus,” an invisible collective group who urge Ester to move on, but she can’t and consequently she humiliates herself repeatedly.

If we wanted to be cruel, we would call Ester a stalker, or at least let’s say that’s what Rask would call her, but he is a game player and in one marvelous scene in the novel, we see how when Ester appears uninterested, his vanity demands that he reel her back in.

Willful Disregard is the sort of book which will spark various arguments and debates about relationships and for this reason it’s a perfect book for book groups. I always feel a bit divided about making a comment that a particular title would be a good choice for a book club as I tend to shy away from book club choices, but in this case, Willful Disregard is practically guaranteed to encourage opinions–I even argued against myself at a few points in this excellent, thought-provoking novel. I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for Ester at first, and I found her obsessive nature rather unsettling, but as the novel played out, it became easier to see how Rask brought out Ester’s vulnerabilities.

It’s possible to read this as a book about obsessive love, but on another level the novel has a definite philosophical tint to it, and asks questions such as: is there such a thing as responsibility in relationships? How much of an explanation is owed to a sex partner? In a perfect world, a couple would sit down and discuss just what sex means before it happens, and in this case, Ester, who looks as sex as a serious commitment, could have really used such an occasion. Think of a pre-nup, well this would be a pre-sex. I’m thinking of a neighbor who, after his wife dumped him, would bring home a string of young women for the night. In the morning, he’d lower the boom, and when the women, invariably asked when they’d see him again, he’d explain he didn’t want a relationship right now. My personal favourite was that he was ‘too fragile’ for a relationship. So I’d see these young women drive off Were they disappointed? Did they care? Would they wise up?

There are occasions when Rask and Ester debate about various philosophical subjects and it becomes quite obvious that they are talking about their own relationship. There are a couple of points when the novel pushes the philosophical too hard–for example, Ester writes an essay and the extensive details of this rejected essay bog down the reading. That very minor complaint aside, I really loved this novel and hope that more of the author’s work makes it to translation. I’ve seen Rasks in action, and author Lena Andersson nailed it.

The one who wants least has the most power.

Review copy

Translated by Sarah Death

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Filed under Andersson Lena, Fiction, Uncategorized