by Balsam Karam
reviewed by Alice E Olsson
Somewhere outside the city, beyond the sugar-cane field and the refuse tip, nestled between the motorway and the mountain, lies the Outskirts. It is a place near the border where undocumented mothers and children have built a community of their own among the makeshift-turned-permanent sheds of tarpaulin and corrugated iron. The Outskirts is home to Milde, the seventeen-year-old girl who becomes its hero when she leads the Uprising and its martyr when she gives her life to a scientific experiment.
Händelsehorisonten (Event Horizon) turns scientific phenomena into metaphor as Milde chooses to be launched into space rather than face the gallows in the city. The scientists want to test their hypothesis and see what happens to a human being when she is sent into a black hole, whether she will break.
In fragments, the novel relates how Milde and her mother Essa, along with other undocumented mothers and children, were expelled from the city and left in a temporary camp for the paperless – a kind of refugee camp which, like those in our own reality, has become more or less permanent, seeing canvas tents give way to tin sheds and children grow into adolescents. Nourished by food scraps from skips and the undying love between a mother and her daughter, Milde grows into a young rebel who instigates the Uprising by setting fire to the city planning office. When she is discovered, she goes into hiding, but is eventually caught. Scenes of torture, and an unforgettable and rare literary moment as our female hero menstruates onto the prison floor, are followed by Milde’s journey into martyrdom as she decides to let the scientists fling her into space, towards the black hole they call ‘the Mass’.
Balsam Karam is a librarian at Rinkeby Public Library just outside Stockholm, in one of Sweden’s most ethnically diverse areas. Like many other Kurds, her family was deported from Iraq to Iran in the early 1980s, as part of Saddam Hussein’s purges. During the war, Karam’s family was forced to flee and move around in the region, before finally settling in Sweden when she was seven. Many of the descriptions of flight and torture in the novel were inspired by Karam’s own family history.
To say that Karam’s prose is poetic would be an understatement. With a lyricism entirely her own, she stretches grammar to its breaking point. Reading Händelsehorisonten is like stepping into another world – albeit one that feels unsettlingly like our own. Karam’s debut has been called ‘dreamlike, rousing’. But it is not quite science fiction; much as we may prefer not to see them, places like the Outskirts exist in our world too. This desire to depict life at the margins is captured in the symbolism of the novel’s title. The ‘event horizon’ is the boundary in spacetime beyond which not even light can escape from a black hole – a physical and metaphorical point of no return, beyond which nothing seems to happen. But this is only apparently so. Stripped of their place in society and condemned to a life in rightlessness, the mothers and children of the Outskirts create their own life in the protective shadow of the mountain.
Most impressive, however, is Karam’s radical solidarity with her characters. Wielding a norm-shattering language, she is determined to approach with a loving gaze those who are usually only seen from the outside. With her feminist dystopia, Karam joins acclaimed authors such as Johannes Anyuru and Jonas Hassen Khemiri in carving out space for a new speculative fiction emanating from Sweden – one that renews the genre by foregrounding questions of diversity and race in a place so often idealised as a social utopia.