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Haralds mamma review

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Issue number: 2023:2


Haralds mamma

(Harald’s Mother)

by Johanna Frid
reviewed by Željka Černok

This is the story: Claudia meets Harald, ‘a golden retriever’ of a man. They fall in love and she moves in with him. She is part of his family now, he states, which is meant to be ‘a declaration of love’, but which, as Claudia will later comment ‘turned out to be a hidden threat’. Harald’s mum is a dreadful know-it-all of a person, a high and mighty old-school feminist, imparting wisdoms no one has asked for. She looks down on Claudia’s upbringing and family and finds her generally lacking in all respects. In short, the mother thinks her son’s girlfriend is no good and she would rather keep him to herself. She inserts herself into her son's relationship with Claudia and is neither able nor willing to understand anything about it. At the same time, she claims to be keen to ‘talk things through’. However, the only thing she seems to want to talk about is herself. How she knows best and has done better in life, and, for that matter, how her whole generation is more capable and has done better. An impossible person to deal with.

Or, is this the story: A caring, loving, capable mother is dealing with her son's problems and has to put up with his terrible girlfriend who does not help and only makes things worse for everybody. She does not even want to let the mother stay in her own son’s flat to help him when she is obviously needed. The girlfriend is a spoiled, entitled drama queen who thinks her problems are the most important. A perfect representative of her generation. An impossible person to deal with.

The question is, who do we believe: the girlfriend who is the storyteller here, a grumpy, poisonously sarcastic person? Is the mother actually the reasonable one? Neither of them is honest nor kind. And what kind of person is the son/boyfriend really?

We meet the women at the beginning of the book at a small airport in the very north of Sweden – they have both come to pick up Harald who is returning from  rehab in Norway. As it turned out, the lovely, chatty Harald Claudia fell in love with is actually bipolar and his self-medicating got out of hand. So at one point, Claudia, in her desperation, called his mother to help. The long wait at the airport (because Harald’s flight is constantly being delayed), among screaming children and bachelor parties, is a perfect setting for things to unravel between the two of them.

But, this is not a simple, funny novel about the fight between a mother and her son’s partner. It’s not even just about generational misunderstandings, Frid has obviously higher ambitions than that. As the story unfolds and we learn more about the characters’ lives, the more obvious it becomes that there is something else here, a layer of dirt, a thick film making everything grubbier, stickier. (One of Frid’s favourite authors is Jade Sharma, and occasionally the atmosphere she creates here is similar.) Frid has a turn of phrase which will make you laugh out loud, and two sentences later break your heart. She has the ease of a writer not trying to appease the reader, she is often bitingly, bitterly sarcastic, something seldomly found in Swedish literature. On the surface we follow an oh-so-wise mother’s platitudes and a passive-aggressive girlfriend’s inner train of thought. (Think Fleabag, but with even darker undertones.) What we get at the end is a story about loneliness as well as about the fear and pain of a young couple coming from very different families, but both dysfunctional in their own way. We understand better why they are so ill-equipped, emotionally and mentally, to deal with things life throws at them. It is obvious that Frid has a lot to say on the subject of the effects of childhood trauma on personal growth and interpersonal relationships. And she has an impressively stylish, sparking, fizzing way of saying it. I, for one, will be keeping a close eye on her writing in the future.

Johanna Frid in white blouse looks at camera resting head on her hand.
Johanna Frid. Photo: Thron Ullberg.

Haralds mamma

Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2023.

230 pages.

Foreign rights: Grand Agency

Johanna Frid is known as an author who in a funny and intelligent way writes about forbidden emotions and difficult relationships. She has won a Dagens Nyheter Culture Prize for her previous novel Nora, or Burn Oslo Burn, reviewed by Annie Prime in SBR 2020:1-2 and translated into eight languages.