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Issue number: 2023:2

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De som ger sig av

(The Ones Who Walk Away)

by Inger Edelfeldt
reviewed by Sarah Death

This is at heart a tale of two very different societies and their methods of control. The first is grim Erimrod, a superstitious place where the townsfolk are trapped in constant obeisance and sacrifice to the monstrous beast or dragon that they have never seen but are reputedly protected by. As they reach puberty, they are expected to undergo mass initiations into adulthood that demand an extraordinary physical price of each young person. Those who refuse are cast out, left to beg and survive as best they can. The second community lives in the hill city of Vánhc, a place of gemstone mines and wealthy merchant families obsessed with beauty. They wear exquisite clothes, design lovely gardens and beget beautiful children. But rigid divorce laws make second-class citizens of wives who fail to procreate, while fear of losing youthful good looks means that most citizens over forty wear a concealing face veil in public. The luxury of life in the Upper Town depends entirely on the goods, services and servants provided by the Lower Town, with its narrow lanes and cramped dwellings, raucous music, shady businesses, herbal charms and malevolent spellcraft.

A journey, a transition between the two rigidly regulated societies – brutal Erimrod and superficial, intrigue-fuelled Vánhc – is made by the teenage girl Fenet, an apprentice forester, who feels scared and desperate enough to sneak away on the eve of her bloody initiation rite and seek refuge in the depths of the forest. There she is found by a young nobleman of Vánhc, who has ridden far from home on an errand and now claims her as his bride. She attempts to assimilate into his world and is later ostracised after the revelation that another man fathered her baby because her own husband was unable. Fenet is reduced to a meagre life in the Lower Town and eventually retreats into a contemplative vocation. The story shifts into a more minor key until we are brought up short by a powerful, unexpected ending. Communities come and go, and the more strictly socially regulated they are, the more readily they can collapse under the weight of their own internal contradictions.          

This creepy, richly-worked plot is housed within a framework narrative, a dialogue between the storyteller Shahrzad, older than time itself, and a young woman known only as The Listener. Each has believed themselves alone in a dismal cell, but suddenly they have materialised in each other’s space. They appear to have been imprisoned and abandoned; the world outside is glimpsed only in their brief comments and seems to be a dystopian, even post-apocalyptic version of Earth, destroyed by human strife and greed and perhaps even suffering some kind of climate catastrophe. In their overheating cell, the starving pair forge a bond as they jointly weave their story. The Listener seems traumatised and in need of serious distraction, and Shahrzad initially takes the lead.  But she increasingly involves her young companion as a co-creator, consulting her on character development or plot directions. It emerges that Shahrzad sees the Listener as her apprentice and anointed successor.

The two of them are sustained by their storytelling and develop an energising dynamic. Shahrzad sends her mind diving into the well of ancient stories and blends the results with her centuries of insight into the human condition. She banters with her cell partner but sometimes grouchily insists on rest and respect.  The young Listener initially craves romance and thrills but gradually gains a better understanding of the inherent rhythms and tensions of great storytelling. The intergenerational sparring and metafictional aspects bring extra dimensions to Edelfeldt’s novel and makes us reflect on our reaction to it.

Edelfeldt’s oeuvre is full of detailed evocations of worlds parallel to our own but this is her first full-length foray into fantasy for an adult readership. Even here, however, she continues to reflect on the questions that lie at the heart of all her fiction: the problematic journey to finding oneself in a society obsessed with outward appearance, conformity, the destructive effects of peer pressure and the casual cruelty in our readiness to exclude and ostracise the Other. Her inspiration for this novel was Ursula Le Guin’s 1973 philosophical short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, set in an ostensibly utopian city whose prosperity depends on the continuing misery of a single child.

Inger Edelfeldt looks at camera wearing a yellow cardigan and star pendant.
Inger Edelfeldt. Photo: Carolina Wiehe.

De som ger sig av

Ellerströms, 2023.

350 pages.

Foreign rights: Marie Pettersson, Ellerströms förlag

Illustrator of Tolkien and Lewis Carroll, translator of Hungarian fairytales, Inger Edelfeldt (b.1956) is a multifaceted author and artist who over the years has steeped herself in visual and written fantasy traditions, particularly the fiction of the English-speaking world. The Ones Who Walk Away is her first full-length fantasy for a grown-up readership. Her novel Hemligt ansikte was reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2008:1