by Sisela Lindblom
reviewed by Michael O. Jones
Brinn! (Burn!) is an innovative novella detailing an episode of Sweden’s 1670s witch trials from the perspective of the most unlikable little girl I’ve come across in fiction for quite some time. The protagonist, Lisbet Carlsdotter, accuses innocent women of snatching children in the night and taking them to cavort with Satan on Blåkulla island. Inevitably, there are echoes of Abigail Williams in The Crucible, but unlike her American counterpart, Lisbet is not motivated by keeping an illicit affair secret, nor is she swept away by mass hysteria: she quite simply dislikes the women she accuses. She is wholly aware that she has never been to Blåkulla, seen the Devil, or witnessed any of the accused women committing the acts she attributes to them, and has no qualms about getting innocent women killed.
Her motivation, therefore, makes her eminently dislikable, which I think is one of the novella’s strong points: we are never at any point invited to like Lisbet, nor we ever subjected to apologism justifying her actions. She’s simply a horrid little girl.
Another strength is that the novella never descends into using the witch trials as a vessel for the discussion of modern gender politics. Rather, this fictionalised account depicts them chiefly as events whereby women ruined other women’s lives for their own vindictive purposes, while the men are not presented as a monolithic, dehumanised entity blithely consigning women to the pyre.
The text does have its shortcomings, however, reading perhaps more like a play script than a novel: characters are presented with little description or explanation, and the Stockholm of the 1670s is left blurry and undeveloped. Indeed, if I were not familiar with Per Anders Fogelström’s Stad (City) and Vilhelm Moberg’s Utvandrarna (Emigrants) series, I would have been driven to search for images online to help me visualise the setting, which would have diminished my reading experience.
It is also short on important world-building information, in a way more reminiscent of Finnish novels than of Swedish literature: Blåkulla is almost entirely unknown outside Scandinavia, and the concept is presented as if the reader should already know what a blåkulla is. However, Brinn! is not alone in this, as all historical pieces assume some background knowledge of the period, such as the persecution of Catholics and the Pendle Witches in Jeanette Winterson’s witch hunt novella The Daylight Gates.
As other reviewers have pointed out, the autofiction does not work in the novella’s favour. Stephen King inserting himself into The Dark Tower was innovative and weird whilst being important to the plot, but Lindblom’s self-insert – the armchair researcher – doesn’t do a successful job of blending the two timelines. It simply reminded me I was reading a novella written by a woman interested in the witch trials. Breaking the fourth wall has been all the rage in various media for a long time, from Sex and the City to Supernatural, but this reviewer at least feels the conceit is growing tired and should be shelved for a while.
All in all, Brinn! is an interesting though flawed exploration of a horrible protagonist and the reason (or lack thereof) she sent so many women to burn as witches.
Foreign rights: Norstedts.
Sisela Lindblom is an author and playwright with a 26-year history of publications, starting with the critically acclaimed Lisa för själen (1995). She has worked as a director and dramaturgist at various theatre companies in Sweden, such as Stockholms Stadsteater and Göteborgs Stadsteater, as well as at Sveriges Radio. She wrote and directed her own play Stjärnan (2011), wrote Jeanne d’Arc (2017) for Backa Teatern, and has directed plays by dramatists including Sophia Treadwell and Astrid Saalbach.