Book Review: Nordic Fauna

In his notes on the text, the translator of this collection of six short stories describes the tales as

“depictions of human struggles with identity, regret, vulnerability, truth and our place among our fellow creatures.”

The creatures featured are both human and various. There is a touch of magical realism, although this is grounded in characters’ perceptions. It is kept in check by underlying questions around what they are experiencing and their own doubts about what they see and feel. Characters try to rationalise fears – to talk themselves down from emotional precipices.

Within the stories, ordinary events are transformed into sinister happenings, with a question hovering over what is real or imagined. This adds tension to interactions with vistas and people – that possible movement glimpsed in the periphery growing eerie and unsettling. Narrators struggle with darkness of thought that erodes the anchors of their existence.

The collection opens with The Bird That Cries in the Night. This is narrated by a young man who regularly visits his estranged parents one after the other. He is concerned about his father, moreso when the older man admits to not sleeping well. He keeps hearing a bird he cannot place that others insist on naming for him. The mother urges her son to concentrate on taking better care of himself. Memories from childhood haunt the man’s attempts to move towards a relationship – he dreams of a future but is distracted by his past, unacknowledged fears. As the story progresses, what unfolds is a spiral.

The Cat was my favourite story. In it, a mother removes herself from her family, leaving the daughter unsure of her standing. Father and son bond, then attempt to force a break in the family impasse. Control they take as their right, they do not possess as expected. Much is left to the reader’s imagination. There is power in the spaces between what is shared.

The Father Hole is another story where what is happening in the shadows is not always clear within the text. A young girl is sent to spend time with her father – a virtual stranger she is afraid of despite how often he lavishes her with gifts. His love is transactional – her physical reaction treated as an ailment. The climax and then her return to him left me with rather too many questions – the weirdness of certain key scenes harder to follow and explain.

The Girlfriend has a slower pace than the other tales. This was fully compensated by the excellent ending – clever and unexpected.

The unpredictability of direction within each of these stories is managed to fine effect, never overdone but keeping the reader on edge and engaged. There is a poignancy within the darkness. Liminal spaces are conjured from what may be passed as mundane. It is easy to empathise with characters whose hidden concerns harbour threats they struggle to articulate. The Swedish setting provides an evocative backdrop to an arresting and enjoyable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Robyn Reviews: Anxious People

Fredrik Backman has a gift for writing people. He seems to understand how people think, how they interact with each other, their motivations, their desires, their fears, in a way that no-one else quite manages. His books are little slices of humanity, always profoundly moving experiences, beautifully written but without any flowery language. I wish I could speak Swedish just so I could experience them in their original form – but full credit to the translator, Neil Smith, for their exceptional job.

Anxious People is a brilliant book. It’s laugh out loud funny in places, sad in others, and changes the way you look at the world. Each character is fresh, unique, and perfectly written. The plot is, in many ways, completely insane, but it works – possibly because it’s almost incidental. This is a story about characters, not about events, and the madness of the plot illustrates perfectly the madness of humanity.

It’s a story about a bank robbery, except it’s not. It’s a story about a hostage situation, but to call it a hostage situation doesn’t do the book or the characters justice at all. Really, it’s a story about a bank robber, two police officers, a banker, a young lesbian couple, a retired couple who renovate homes, an actor, a grandmother, an estate agent, and a therapist. I could tell you more, but all I’m going to tell you is to read it. It’s brilliant, and it’s even more brilliant when you don’t know anything going in. Just enjoy being taken for the ride.

The characters are perfect. They all start perfectly normal, somewhat stereotypical, then layers upon layers are peeled back and suddenly you’re questioning everything. Backman takes every single assumption that people make and flips them. It’s clever and leaves you questioning everything, which is exactly how a novel should make you feel.

Read this book. I usually end my reviews by recommending books to a specific audience, but this book’s audience is everyone. There is no-one who wouldn’t benefit from reading this, and I think most will enjoy it. It’s fun, clever, very different, and an indescribably good reading experience. I’m so grateful to live in a time when we have a novelist like Fredrik Backman.

 

Published by Michael Joseph (Penguin)
Hardback: 20 August 2020

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.

Book Review: The Iron Age

The Iron Age, by Arja Kajermo (illustrated by Susanna Kajermo Törner), is a story of a childhood. It begins in 1950s Finland when the narrator is four years old. She lives on a small farm with her war damaged father, stoic mother, angry grandmother and two older brothers. Neighbouring farms are owned by wider family, some more well off than others but all reliant on the land. Properties are connected by dirt tracks and a lake. The log cabins lack running water and electricity. The people raise, grow or make the bulk of what they need. Life is hard, made moreso for the unnamed child by her father’s volatility.

Of course, the child knows of no other way. She observes the behaviour of those around her, the anger and resentments the adults feel. Her language is simple yet conveys the tradition and attitudes under which they all live. Told with a dry, dark humour, day to day life passes and the seasons turn.

Money is tight so Father travels to distant towns after harvest has been gathered to find work. He returns with gifts and dreams for a future which he berates his country for failing to provide. This future he talks of appears a myth to the child, much like his stories from the past which he shares repeatedly with local visitors. She listens avidly but with a lack of understanding, shown to effect by her literal interpretations.

Eventually there is a row so bitter the family must move away. Father takes them to a distant town and then onwards to Sweden where everything changes. They do not speak the language, the child must attend school. Books become a solace, her voice a hindrance.

Mother strikes out for a degree of independence of which Father disapproves. His traditional attitudes are now as anachronistic as the clothes he chose to impress, viewed askance by the Swedish.

The child has little control over the detail of her existence yet she harbours her secrets, survives by living inside her head. The denouement felt sudden, perhaps because I didn’t want the story to end.

Told in sparse, droll language this is a beautifully painted portrayal of the transience of time and place when young. The illustrations work perfectly with the text, adding an extra dimension. A fable like depiction of unbelonging that I recommend you read.

The Iron Age is published by Tramp Press.

Book Review: Block 46

Block 46, by Johana Gustawsson (translated by Maxim Jakubowski), is the first book in a proposed new series of crime thrillers featuring protagonists Emily Roy, a Canadian profiler working for Scotland Yard, and Alexis Castells, a French true-crime writer living in London. Dealing as it does with a suspected serial killer who preys on young boys, and with a backstory that graphically details the horrors of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, the tale is dark and raw in places. It studies circumstances that can allow for the normalisation of evil.

The story opens with a group of high-end friends coming together for a launch in London of a bespoke jewellery line created by Linnéa Blix, who is one of their number. When she does not show up for the event they are gravely concerned as this was a much anticipated highlight in her career. Three of the group – her partner Peter, and old friends Alba and Alexis, opt to fly to Sweden where Linnéa had been on retreat. As they arrive they are informed by the local police that Linnéa’s mutilated body has been found on a small marina near her holiday home.

The short chapters jump around in time and place which took me some time to engage with. A body is being buried in a wood in 2013; a German medical student is experiencing dehumanising treatment in a crowded train on his way to Buchenwald in 1944; the Swedish police call in a talented profiler to assist with their investigation into Linnéa’s murder in 2014. The London based friends experience intense grief at their loss and I was somewhat perplexed by how emotionally invested they appeared to be. Perhaps this is simply that I struggle to empathise with such relationships.

Of the key protagonists, I found Alexis weak initially but enjoyed the way Emily’s character was being developed from the off. Both harbour tragedies from their pasts that are gradually revealed. This promises to be an interesting literary pairing.

The presentation of the thought processes of the killers, both contemporary and at Buchenwald – the pleasure they derived from their actions and the way they justified what they were doing – is chillingly portrayed.

The tension picks up as the threads are expanded and the murder investigation progresses. The twists and turns ensure that the reader cannot easily guess the next reveal or where it may be leading. The denouement was deftly handled although not all my questions were answered. I am left wondering if I missed clues along the way.

I enjoyed the reactions of the characters to each other. For example: the policeman Olofsson generates annoyance amongst colleagues with his actions and attitudes yet is genuinely trying to fit in; Emily changes persona when she deals with interviewees as she has been advised what manner can be effective, something that perplexes the more emotional Alexis who has only previously experienced Emily’s natural brusqueness. I was drawn to Emily, her innate abilities, honesty and social distancing.

The author has based the Buchenwald sections on the experiences of her grandfather and these are a strong if disturbing addition to the story. In weaving a contemporary plot around how certain inmates may have been affected long term by interactions within the camp, and the cost of their survival, the reader is challenged to consider personal actions and justifications.

Despite a lingering degree of ambivalence there is much to ponder from this tale. It developed into a gripping if sometimes harrowing read. I will look with interest for the next book in this series. The author’s astute and uncompromising style suggests she is one to watch.

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

This post is a stop on the Block 46 Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Block 46 is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.