from Breathless Home
by Matilda Gyllenberg
translated by Sarah Death
‘I live in a house that is bathed in light,’ says the unnamed narrator in Matilda Gyllenberg’s debut novel Det lungsjuka huset (Breathless Home). Having inherited a house from her husband John’s grandmother, the protagonist sets about gutting it and making it her own, decorating the interiors to a sparse, impractical perfection. And yet a darkness lingers: in the choked atmosphere of the home (as hinted at by the Swedish title, which translates as 'The Consumptive House'); in the ominous reluctance of her neighbours to talk about the past; in her own ambivalence towards life and parenthood. Trapped in a cage of her own making, the narrator observes herself, her family and her neighbours with a ruthless yet unreliable gaze.
When she comes into the possession of the diary of a woman named Hild, a vivacious personality who made waves in the secluded community some decades earlier, it turns up a sinister past that is soon echoed in the narrator’s own present.
Written in a concise, loaded language that weaves together past and present, Breathless Home is a gripping piece of psychological realism that explores parenthood, isolation, responsibility and our at times conflicting needs for security and freedom. The following excerpt is the opening chapter of the book.
from Breathless Home
That is what I would say, if anyone were to ask where I was from. That was the way I had conceived it and that is exactly how it should have been.
But in reality, it is always dark in here. Despite all my efforts, despite all the renovations that were meant to make it so light and lovely, inside the house it is never more than a sort of twilight.
In Lockum, the place where we live, most people have detached houses. A lot of them are large, with two cars on the drive and lawns watered by automatic sprinkler systems. They make rainbows in the sunlight.
Every house has an open porch at the front and a garden at the back. There is no fencing to divide the plots; instead, we have lilac bushes or trellises with climbing roses. There are low white wooden fences running along the street side. Beyond the gardens, the forest takes over.
In the town centre there is a gift shop, a school and a scruffy health centre. On the edge of town there is a hill with a view over a disused pit. People here have quarried limestone since the fourteenth century, and the rock of the open-cast mine has a white sparkle to it.
All around, the countryside stretches away in a chequered pattern of fields until the settlement grows denser again and the suburbs of the capital city crowd in. The railway line reached here a hundred years ago and made a huge impact; even today it still acts as a marker in time, and people talk about which families settled here before the trains came.
The railway line forms a boundary between south and north. On the north side there are more tower blocks and the streets are narrower. Children are warned not to go too close to the tracks. There have been accidents.
We have lived here for a couple of years now. Every time I come through the door I am struck by the stuffy atmosphere, impossible to air out.
Perhaps it is something to do with the building itself. Something in the walls, behind the wallpaper.
Out in the garden, the air is fresh and there are ferns, wood anemones and nettles growing. It is not one of those old gardens with knotted apple trees and currant bushes, but there is a rock to climb on and it is covered in moss. Outside there is a fairly large area of grass, shared by the cluster of about ten houses.
These houses constitute a housing association. Housing associations for detached properties are unusual, but that is how it has been from the word go. All the houses are collectively owned; anyone who moves in here buys shares in the housing association and this gives them access to one of the properties. The housing association is on a street and the street is called Sky Goat Way.
The houses look like fourteen sugar lumps set out in rows around a juicy green rectangle. But in the middle of the big grassy area there is a gaping brown hollow of nutrient-poor soil. It looks like a wound in the earth.
I often find myself standing at the living-room window, my hand caressing the pale grey wood of the windowsill. I haven’t really got the time for it. This seven-year-old grows out of her clothes faster than I can buy new ones and fold away her old ones. Little tops and balls of tights that are a perpetual reminder of her direction of travel, away from me.
Yet I go on stealing those minutes at the window. If any of the neighbours catch sight of me and raise a hand in greeting, I pretend to be fully occupied with some task like picking the dead leaves off the pot plants or scrutinising an imaginary mark on the curtain.
Our house was built in 1980, the year I was born, and designed to match that period’s yearning for security and a sense of community. Each house is close to the house next door, they are all made of the same white sandstone brick, and because the gardens are owned by the housing association, you are not allowed to do whatever you like with them.
The collectivism has been diluted over time and only about half of the original residents are the original, now greying owners, while the other half are young families who have recently moved in.
The grey-haired brigade is keen to cling on to power. The youngsters want to make their own decisions about their gardens and renovations.
My husband John inherited the place from his paternal grandparents. They moved here to be sure of spending their middle and old age among their friends and peers of the upper-middle class. They wanted to live here in the shade of the cherry trees with their possessions, all those beautiful objects that Great-Grandma valued so highly. They were her guarantee that she had got somewhere in life, that she was a full member of the bourgeois dream they had bought into when they purchased their shares in the housing association.
Great-Grandpa, who came from quite a distinguished family and had a well-paid professional position as a military doctor, made bass violins and grandfather clocks out in his carpentry workshop and played the trombone in the residents’ orchestra. Those possessions may have belonged to him, but they did not own him. Great-Grandma, on the other hand, was owned by her assets to the extent that she locked the door every time she went out to the bins. When she was old and living alone, she refused to let anyone else have a spare key to the house. She trusted neither her relations nor the visiting carers.
Great-Grandpa Harald would jovially describe a long life together as being like two stones in a pocket, gradually wearing each other down, growing ever smoother. He was a man with a sense of humour, a real joker. It was Great-Grandma Olga who was the sharper stone, the strict, unyielding one with principles.
These are the roles that we, the later generations of the family, have assigned to them. I knew little when we moved in of how their daily lives in this house used to play out.
In their early years of retirement, when the country was on its way to a brighter future, houses bathed in light were not considered modern. Great-Grandma chose all the materials herself and went for the sort of wallpaper that feels like netting under your fingers, in a shade of beige. And walls panelled in birchwood veneer up to chest height. The ceiling was lowered to give the right, cosy feel. Forget space and whiteness and big windows.
When it was decided that we were to take over the house, there had been no renovation work for over thirty years. My husband, who had run around here as a child and eaten honey sandwiches and been loved and kept in order, had an emotional attachment to the house. I did not. But we needed somewhere to live and longed for a garden for our child to play in. It felt practical to take over the house after Great-Grandma died.
Child of my time as I am, and influenced by the cool indoor spaces in the interior design magazines, I yearned for emptiness. A feeling of emptiness in a room. The complete opposite of Great-Grandma’s yearning for objects on every surface, treasures in chests, and dark, oppressive national landscapes on the walls.
I dreamed of light. Of knocking through the brick walls and making space for new windows. Taking up the floor and replacing it with soft, white oak. Taking out the dividing walls and opening them up to space. Open-plan kitchen and open-plan solutions, white walls and white kitchen cupboards. Interior decoration with filmy curtains and light furniture.
John was involved in the planning and renovation, of course. But the floorboards did not represent happiness for him. For me, the house came to embody the dream of a better life. Here we would refresh ourselves after the heat of the days. Here we would find peace and have time for everything we felt we were missing.
I decorated the nursery to make it look playful and pretty. The children’s rooms in the interior design magazines depressed me with their black-painted walls and white curtains and a choice selection of unappealing designer toys tossed into a basket.
Not that I let the little girl herself decide. The room is not a reflection of her soul but only of what I want to put into that soul, into that empty shell.
We call her Peachy Pie. Or PP for short.
As the guts of the house were being torn out and the old was giving way to the new, I repeatedly had the opportunity to turn my visions into reality. Air to breathe. Soft surfaces beneath little feet. This was where childhood memories would be created. Now that there was a chance for once to remake everything from scratch and the possibility of having it just as we wanted.
John sounded a warning note in the background: a home is something you have to be able to live in, the child will dirty and crumple all those orderly arrangements. I understood and I agreed: our house is going to be alive and full of forgiveness, not of prohibitions. Yet I still chose two pale grey sofas, deciding to ignore all the stress that keeping them pristine would involve.
I always chose beauty over peace. I say I chose beauty, but perhaps I should say that I chose prestige. Just like Great-Grandma.
When anything went awry, I felt dissatisfied. A strip of wood that was the wrong colour drove me to crazy levels of annoyance. I started to think of it as a house that enjoyed picking quarrels.
John came to regret having fallen for the temptation to let me make my dream come true. He wanted to invest in our happiness and give me everything I desired but had no idea where it would lead. I grew less and less pleasant and I knew it was happening.
But I am fond of my poor house. When I am at home on my own, I take a lot of pleasure in straightening cushions and tenderly inspect every scratch on the smooth oak floor. The light does not come flooding in through the new extra windows but a serene sort of duskiness reigns.
I put Great-Grandma’s things up for sale on an online marketplace. Not all of them found a buyer. I gave the rest away or took them for recycling. There is almost nothing left of everything she loved and cherished. Her beautiful handwriting on slips of yellowing paper fixed to each item so that those of us left behind would know its provenance. I carefully removed the notes and put them away somewhere. Without the objects they belonged to they are worthless, and will be thrown out or burned someday.
But the mirror in the hall from Great-Grandma’s days still hangs in its place. The glass is dark. You can see shadows from the past moving deep within it.
There was only one part of our house that remained unrenovated, and that was Great-Grandma’s mangle room. It is back-to-back with the storeroom where Great-Grandpa had his carpentry workshop, and has shelves from floor to ceiling. The old mangle is on a bench against the wall, and the shelves are filled with rolls of white sheets dating back decades, perhaps centuries. Every sheet is daintily embroidered with a monogram at the top.
Here lies the whole clan, shrouded in whiteness and starch.
They say the oldest sheet belonged to Captain August Nilsson Francke, who according to the family chronicles went to sea for the last time in 1784 and was never seen again. His trunk is still here, left behind for some reason. Perhaps it was too heavy – a wooden trunk with heavy iron fittings, which we use as a TV table. I can appreciate that it was not exactly practical as a suitcase.
But what fascinates me about the sheets is that it was Great-Grandma’s own hands that mangled and folded, mangled and folded, rolled them up and put them away one by one.
It was her hands that did this. Great-Grandma was a housewife and these sheets are her life’s work, her legacy.
The floor of the mangle room was neither pale oak nor shiny yellow parquet, but imitation cork, made of plastic. In my eagerness to tear everything up when we started the renovation work, I made a beeline for the plastic floor. I had heard, after all, of people finding fabulous, century-old, thirty-centimetre-wide floorboards under the most prosaic linoleum – in a deranged moment I had forgotten that the house was built in the 1980s.
I started in the far corner, worked it loose and pulled it up, but underneath there was naturally nothing but concrete and insulation material. The floor that was now revealed seemed to have some kind of trapdoor or hatch in it. I saw the outline of a flat square. When I scrabbled in the gaps round the sides to find a grip, the concrete crumbled under my fingernails.
I heard PP shouting, somewhere outside.
I hastily got to my feet and let the linoleum fall back into place. It was hideous and beige but it would have to do for now. Other rooms were more important. Guests are seldom shown into the utility rooms.
I hurried across the corridor to PP’s room. She had climbed onto the desk, put a chair on the desk, balanced a stool on the chair and climbed up to stick a fluorescent star on the ceiling. Now she was angry because she could not reach. I grabbed her before she fell.
© Matilda Gyllenberg 2019
Det lungsjuka huset
Förlaget M, 2019, 260 pages.
Foreign rights: Rights & Brands.
We are grateful to Rights & Brands for permission to publish this translated extract.
Matilda Gyllenberg is a journalist and author. She has worked as a news anchor, been a presenter and editor for various television programs, and she has also worked as a columnist. Breathless Home (Det lungsjuka huset) is her debut novel. One Hundred Days at Home (Hundra dagar hemma) is her first novel for children, and it was recognized as an outstanding book by the Swedish Literature Society in 2023.
Sarah Death is a translator and editor and lives in north Kent. She enjoys working on texts from a wide range of periods and genres. Her translations range from novels by Fredrika Bremer and Selma Lagerlöf via the letters of Tove Jansson to the latest part of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo franchise, The Girl in the Eagle’s Talons, written by Karin Smirnoff and published in August 2023.