Book Review: Welcome to America

Ellen is eleven years old and stopped talking after her father died. She had prayed for his death and now feels culpable although also happy that he can no longer disrupt her family’s life. She was afraid of him and is also afraid of her brother. She adores her beautiful, actress mother but cannot imagine ever recapturing the closeness they once enjoyed.

Welcome to America, by Linda Boström Knausgård (translated by Martin Aitken), is told in the first person by Ellen as she navigates her self-imposed silence and the effect it has on those around her. Unwilling to communicate, she watches as her mother tries to maintain some normalcy. Ellen fears change, especially the prospect of growing up. She wishes her mother happiness but does not want to be like her.

“I didn’t want her glitzy smiles. Her perfect hair. Her wanting me to be a beautiful girl. To her, beauty was something on its own. An important property that had to be cultivated like a flower.”

The tangled threads of how the family got to this moment are revealed in spare prose. Caught in the crossfire of her parents’ behaviour, Ellen remembers moments of light and her mother’s determined optimism. She has internalised so much trauma but cannot find the words to explain. Once words are spoken they generate ripples. Silence offers Ellen the stillness she craves.

The story unfolds mostly in the spacious apartment where Ellen lives with her mother and brother. She observes her brother demanding solitude by nailing closed the door of his bedroom. She observes her mother as she prepares meals, teaches her pupils and goes out to work. The ebb and flow of family life is evoked with painful insight – the closeness and necessary distancing.

The pain Ellen feels is palpable yet rarely expressed. Her mother’s reaction to her daughter’s behaviour is filtered through a determination to grant agency. There is much love within this family but also recognition of the needs of individuals – finding that difficult balance between neglect and freedom.

A fierce yet beautifully rendered depiction of family trauma and its repercussions. A recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, World Editions.

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