(Movements of the Hand)
by Felicia Stenroth
reviewed by Alex Fleming
Ida works in a call centre on the twelfth floor of a city tower block. It is a job of long shifts and irregular hours, of snatched moments of respite from a steady influx of calls, her performance immediately rated in coloured bars by callers. Outside working hours, Ida spends time with her girlfriend Edita, reads a book on the meaninglessness of work, and makes tentative friendships with colleagues. She also relives her past: childhood memories that appear to have a strong hold on the life she leads today.
Handens rörelser is Felicia Stenroth’s fourth book, after the novels Bilder som inte angår mig (Images that don’t concern me, 2015) and Indianlekar (Indian Games, 2017), and the poetry collection En människa tvättar sig ren i en sjö (A person washing themself in a lake, 2017). Picking up on the themes of social exclusion and poverty explored in her earlier novels, Handens rörelser is a taut, strikingly written representation of modern-day exploitation, and a powerful account of the lasting psychological effects of poverty.
Much of the novel is devoted to Ida’s working conditions, capturing in particular the depersonalisation – or even dehumanisation – of modern-day labour. Food and toilet breaks are a rare occurrence, Ida’s responses to callers are largely scripted, and she and her colleagues are fully interchangeable – even down to the headsets they all share. This is echoed to some extent in the narrative style, which is precise and clipped, driven more by factual observations than emotional responses. On two occasions the text is even pared down to unembellished work rotas, as Ida struggles under the spiritual and physical drain of her work. ‘All she ever wants is to have time that feels like her own,’ Stenroth writes.
What little time Ida does gets off feels like borrowed time, much of it spent on transport or sleeping off her work-induced lethargy. In happier moments she sees Edita, who gently encourages her towards other forms of employment. Meanwhile, Ida’s newfound bonds with colleagues Linn, Niko and Michèl bring some much-needed warmth and humanity to the otherwise impersonal work environment.
But lingering behind Ida’s present life lies another narrative, one that obliquely traces her childhood and relationship with her mother, Sofia. Presented through shifting images, often interspersed, sentence by sentence, with present events, a picture emerges of a hard-working but struggling single mother who numbs her pain with wine and impulse buys, and of a childhood eked out from payday to payday, never knowing when the heating or water would be turned back on. One day Sofia brings Ida a puppy; on another their piano is repossessed.
While there is lyricism and beauty in these passages, it is clear that they are a weight on Ida, a pain she feels neither able to share – not even with Edita – nor to completely leave behind. ‘[Ida] can’t talk about Sofia,’ Stenroth writes. ‘She doesn’t have it in her to try to be something she was before.’ Yet despite the barriers Ida puts up, the past inevitably seeps into her present. Much of the novel plays on this tension between present and past, exploring the role that family and class have to play in our lives long after childhood.
As a poet, Stenroth has a remarkable ability to load resonance and meaning into simple, stripped-back sentences, building allusive, layered passages that shift and expand before the reader. The unsentimental narrative blurs timeframes and places, giving a patchwork of facts and impressions rather than a linear plot. As a result, much is left to the reader’s imagination. The text is also full of visual and rhetorical motifs, which add additional texture to the book.
Handens rörelser has been widely praised by critics since publication in 2020. While some have found fault with the spaces left between its lines, I found this expansiveness completely in keeping with Ida’s mental state and narrative style. This novel offers neither straightforward answers nor a neat resolution, but for its crisp, evocative language and compelling exploration of poverty, labour, exhaustion and solidarity I would certainly recommend it.