by Nina Wähä
reviewed by Karin Filipsson
What is friendship?
Is it a platonic love relationship?
Is it an elective sibling relationship?
It can probably be all of that, but there is a dimension of friendship that is more all-embracing than any sibling or love relationship, one that feels almost cannibal-like at times. Surely a friend must be the only one you can love so much and so absolutely that it sometimes feels as if you have to eat each other up before you can be satisfied?[…]
We are best friends. Have been for so long that I can’t even remember how it started. How do relationships start? A love affair, that’s an easier relationship to put a date on, there’s a clear before and after. After the first kiss. After it all ends. But friendship? It creeps up on you.[…]
Has any friendship like this, febrile or cannibal, survived the ravages of time? Are there people who can live their whole lives as minor characters in someone else’s life? (Translations: Sarah Death)
Babetta is both the title of Nina Wähä’s latest novel, and the name of the movie in the story which has propelled the actress Lou, one of the two main female characters, to international stardom and a life in luxury with her older companion Renaud, the famous film photographer, at a chateau in the South of France. To visit her in this dreamy existence, which at first seems like a feelgood-fantasy, she invites her high-school friend Katja, a struggling actress turned graduate student who, as part of a project which reads as a commentary on academic life versus the life of an artist/actor, is applying for a grant to write about women in film, including Babetta. What follows is a compelling narrative which allows us to participate in Katja’s gaze, which is part jealousy, part affectionate friendship bordering on obsession. To add to the dramatic relationship between the two women which forms the main plot of the novel, reality mirrors the world of the film Babetta, with the development of a complicated love triangle and metoo-storyline when Katja arrives in France as Lou and Renaud’s guest.
The novel’s construction is inspired by film, complete with Tarantino-esque chapters with Roman numerals and an alternative ending called ‘Director’s Cut’ followed by ‘The End/Fin’. The blending of boundaries between Katja’s gaze and her feverish obsession with Lou’s perception of her, and the theme of almost cannibal-like, close female friendship, in combination with the extravagant location and old-school movie plot, invite the reader to experience the novel as part fairy-tale, part meta-commentary on the academic, feminist study of art, and as an art-film in writing. The reader becomes complicit in Katja’s ambiguous gaze, the gaze of the audience, and after finishing the novel, you feel compelled to go back and ‘watch’ it again. Because, as Katja states on the first page of the book, ‘it’s impossible to look away’. There is a desire to go back and look for clues or hints beneath the screen of language, but just like in an art house movie, the story comes to an abrupt end, and just like in life, or on the big screen, it’s not always clear what really happened. We are left with more questions than answers about the nature of the relationships in the novel, in particular the friendship between Katja and Lou and whose gaze it really is we have been allowed to follow.
Foreign Rights: Linda Altrov Berg, Norstedts Agency
An extract from Babetta appeared in SBR 2022:1 (translated by Sarah Death). Nina Wähä’s previous novel, Testament, published in 2019, was nominated for the August Prize and Norrland's Literature Prize, and was awarded Swedish Radio's Literature Prize.
Bortbytingar 1 – De överblivnas armé
(Changelings 1 – The Army of Orphans)
by Gustav Tegby
reviewed by Catherine Venner
Dorian appears to be an average 13-year-old who has a habit for getting himself into trouble. However, his world is turned upside down when his older sister, Nadia, dies. At her funeral, he thinks he makes it rain in the church. Everything being too much for him, he runs out of the church and gets into a waiting taxi. During the journey, he notices that the driver is in fact a small girl. She introduces herself as Majken and explains that she is a changeling, to be more precise a myling, who can wake the dead. She had been waiting for Dorian for he too is a changeling and is to start school the next day to learn his powers.
At school Dorian takes a quiz and learns that he is an elf, who can create illusions but can never lie. His two class mates are Gabriel, a sprite who can talk to animals and nature, and Roja, a troll who is very strong and can talk to inanimate objects. Together they are to practise their new-found powers, as well as going on class trips to see the legendary Mimir’s head (and sneakily ask it questions) and the giant that sleeps under the streets of Stockholm and holds up the world. The school is training changelings to guard the giants so that they do not awake and cause earthquakes.
Outside of school Dorian meets Majken as he believes that she will be able to briefly bring his sister back from the dead so he can ask her one last question. In return, Majken wants his help to recapture her friend who has been kidnapped by the ominous Army of Orphans. Her friend is also a myling and she and others of her kind are being forced to use their powers to create a legion of the undead. However, Nadia is missing from her grave. It is thought that she has also been taken by the Army of Orphans.
Together Dorian and Roja discover the army’s headquarters and its guard, a huge troll going by the name of Besten who is never without Cindy, his knuckle duster. They plan to break into the headquarters to rescue the girls, but to do so they need the help of Gabriel, who Dorian feels inexplicably drawn to. They also enlist the assistance of Nadia’s pet rat Sture and even Harry, a gnome who is working as a private detective.
Their daring plan involves smuggling wasps into the headquarters in Gabriel’s mouth and Dorian creating the illusion for Besten that he still has Cindy. In the chaos, they quickly find Majken’s friend, but Nadia is not among the legion of the undead and Gabriel is injured and must be left behind. Once Majken is reunited with her friend, she reveals she moved Nadia’s body so that Dorian would help her. On returning to the grave, Nadia’s body is once again missing and Dorian wonders if his sister is also a changeling, to be more precise a myling!
The Army of Orphans is the first in a trilogy by acclaimed YA author Gustav Tegby aimed at readers aged 11+ and it sets the scene really nicely: The mixture of modern-day phenomena, such as mobile phones and school, mix seamlessly with Nordic folklore and creatures from Nordic mythology. The teenage protagonists are likeable and relatable, with typical teenage struggles combined with those of discovering they are mythical creatures.
The themes of loyalty to friends and the budding romance between Dorian and Gabriel run through the novel, while the action drives the plot and makes the reader want more. And although it touches on difficult topics, such as death and broken families, there is no lack of humour thanks to characters such as Sture the talking rat and Harry the gnome, who appears to have a finger in every pie. As could be expected with the first book in a series, the ending leaves questions unanswered - plus a hostage to be rescued - so that the reader will be hungry for the next instalment. The next two books to be released in 2023 will be eagerly awaited.
Bortbytingar 1 – De överblivnas armé
Rabén & Sjögren, 2022
Foreign rights: Grand Agency
Gustav Tegby is a successful script writer for theatre and radio in Sweden, Finland and the USA. His debut novel, Beröringen (Touched) was nominated for Norrland’s Literary Award in 2019. Bortbytingar was shortlisted for the Crimetime Awards 2022 in the category Best Children’s Crime.
Vi ska ju bara cykla förbi
(We'll just ride past)
by Ellen Strömberg
reviewed by Sophie Ruthven
In a small town in Swedish-speaking Finland, Manda and her best friend Malin are bored. Things might have been better if they'd grown up in New York – well, probably. There's only one corner shop worth visiting; their classmates have barely ever changed, and, as for parties... well. They're in need of something more than the annual barbecue in the play park. They're thirsty for adventure, preferably a great romance, one so great it lasts forever – or will make for a fantastic story at any rate. There’s one small problem though: to everyone else, they're just 'the Bikes', two girls who are always alone together, always on their bikes. Oh, and there isn't really anyone here worth having a romance with, either. Then they meet John, the handsome new pizza-maker, and find out he's in a punk band with the rebel Pugg, who Malin thinks is pretty cool. One romantic target for each friend, perfect. They hear about a party which will have a somewhat older crowd, and – crucially – Pugg and John. Malin suggests the two friends head there under the pretext of just riding past on their bikes and just happening to see the event, not planning on gate-crashing. At all. Once there, Malin seems to think everything is going swimmingly, but Manda is unsure. Her interaction with John is confusing to say the least, and the more she hears about him from the older girls and the more she chats with him online, the more unsure she is about her feelings. But this was the plan, right? Manda and John?
This is Strömberg's third novel, and the result is confident and joyful, full of both big and little feelings. It's a story that left me with a warm fuzziness inside: Manda and Malin's world is such a clear reflection of that time in life where every day holds the possibility of romance and bold new things, and yet you never quite seem to control the means to create the excitement you're imagining. A new person triggers a million possibilities in your head. A new sense of style could take your life in a whole new direction. Yet there's an element of randomness to it all, and all you can do is try to get yourself into the best position for action, before regrouping with your friend under the slide in the forgotten play park.
The reader follows Manda's perspective and sees her confidence grow satisfyingly and realistically throughout the novel, and she ends up making some quite mature decisions when it comes to her feelings, albeit with some decent moments of shock and embarrassment along the way. However, although Manda's personal development features prominently, Vi ska ju bara cykla förbi is also a novel about friendship. Strömberg really captures what it's like to hang out with your best friend at every moment you can, in places that are perhaps mundane to adults but magical to you, making your own myths and histories. An intense, inseparable friendship which can perhaps only exist during the latter years of high school, when you start to form your own world apart from your family circle. It's also the time when, although we might be becoming aware of how little we know, what we do know can be humorous gospel, such as Malin's assertion that 'A romance is a little bit forbidden, perhaps, and exciting and like... passionate! A boyfriend is someone who plays hockey and makes out with you a bit on your freshly made bed.'
The friends complement one another in their adventures, with Manda's insecurity being understandable and relatable, as is Malin's desire for more from their lives socially. As Manda appears to replace Malin as the effortlessly cool one (especially in Malin's eyes), this seeming role reversal slowly leads both friends towards a more balanced and nuanced understanding of one another. Malin is lifted down gently from her pedestal, but as a result, both friends find a deeper understanding and connection, and eventually expand their friendship to a wider circle of older girls living their own adventures, whilst maintaining their own special bond.
I asked my own high school best friend how she would describe our relationship back then, in only five key words, and she replied with: 'loving, exclusive, unique, nerdy, special'. A summary which in my mind is entirely specific to our experience, and yet one I suspect many people would probably nod in agreement to, if such a description were attached to their high school friendships. To the word 'special' in particular– and that's certainly Manda and Malin's relationship too. With its warm and real portrayal of friendship and self-discovery, Vi ska ju bara cykla förbi is a real treat for both adult and YA readers.
Vi ska ju bara cykla förbi
Rabén & Sjögren, Schildts & Söderströms (Finland) 2022
Foreign rights: Helsinki Literary Agency
Ellen Strömberg debuted in 2018. So far she has written three novels and one children’s book, and appears regularly in Svenska YLE’s podcast Sällskapet.
Strejk. Frän satans svarta kvarnar till gigekonomin
(Strike. From Dark Satanic Mills to the Gig Economy)
by Jesper Hamark
reviewed by Darcy Hurford
Economic cycles have their ups and downs: from boom to bust. Jesper Hamark notes that the same might be said of academic interest in strikes, which tends to follow economic cycles, albeit with a time lag. Many strikes; an upswing in research. Few strikes; a slump in research. This suggests that we tend to see a lack of industrial conflict as the norm – it’s strikes that need explaining, not their absence. It’s an interesting thought, given that the relationship between workers and employers (Hamark has chosen the word ‘arbetsköpare’, ‘labour-buyers’, rather than the more usual ‘arbetsgivare’, ‘labour-givers’ as he believes it captures a subtle ideological difference between the two) is so key to our everyday life.
Strejk contains many such interesting thoughts. Its 21 chapters cover a broad range of topics, with a particular – but not exclusive – focus on the global north. There are plenty of examples from Sweden, but the US, UK and China are among the others well-represented. Some of the titles are calculated to awake your curiosity – ‘The Curse of the Public Sector Employee’, ‘When the Toy Giant Fell’ and ‘The Deadly Sin’, for example, and while a reader with some background knowledge of the topic would probably get more out of reading it, it is still accessibly written enough to make sense to a more general readership. It is not a comprehensive historical overview of the development of strikes, but rather a series of close-ups of different issues, often comparing events in different countries.
One theme that keeps coming through in Strejk is the difference between industrial conflict in the US and in Scandinavia. By and large, industrial relationships in the US are much more characterised by conflict. Hamark describes the development of lockouts and sit-down strikes in the US, and the violent treatment meted out to strikebreakers on occasion. In Denmark and Sweden, by contrast, workers organised themselves fairly early on, and were recognised by employers as a partner to be negotiated with. The ‘Septemberforliget’ (‘September Settlement’) signed in Denmark in 1899 between a trade union on the one hand and employers’ association on the other came to be the dominant model for relationships between workers and employers. A similar agreement was reached in Sweden. The States was also where the practice of ‘union-busting’, trying to prevent workers organising themselves, was most prevalent. Nonetheless, an influential sit-down strike at General Motors in 1936 did lead to a collective agreement between workers and employers.
Hamark also looks at contemporary topics, including Amazon’s treatment of its staff and conditions at large scale factories in China. On the question of whether platforms like Deliveroo actually employ people – are the services being provided ‘through’ or ‘for’ a platform – he draws an analogy: if I put up a notice asking for a cleaner on a supermarket notice board and someone responds, the cleaning has been provided through the supermarket, not for the supermarket.
He makes a point that seems particularly salient at the moment. Striking for better wages tends not to awaken public sympathy; striking for better conditions does. In the chapter with the most eye-catching name, ‘The Piss Conflict’, he discusses the time 16,000 bus drivers in Sweden went on a strike lasting 13 days. Impressively, they had the public on their side – even though the public were the hapless third party affected by the strike. Generally speaking, it is near impossible to win a conflict where the third party is powerful and hostile, but somehow the bus drivers managed it. How? Because, says Hamark, they had a good story. The strike came after efforts to reduce costs that left bus drivers working longer shifts with fewer breaks. Answering the call of nature meant they wouldn’t be able to run the buses on time. This very human aspect was what won them public sympathy. Finding a story is useful for strikers everywhere.
Strejk. Frän satans svarta kvarnar till gigekonomin
Verbal förlag, 2022
Foreign rights: the author
Jesper Hamark has a PhD in economic history from the Gothenburg School of Economics and is currently Visiting Research Fellow at Gothenburg University. Strejk is his first book.
Jag faller som en sten genom tiden genom livet
(I'm falling like a stone through time through life)
by Åke Smedberg
reviewed by Anna Paterson
A strange phrase, that title, even a little off-putting for people who like snappy labels. On the other hand, it must cause a pang of recognition in those who, like Åke Smedberg, can find themselves suddenly immersed in worlds remembered in great vividness and detail.
The exchange of letters between Smedberg and Elsie Johansson, another writer loved for her evocative writing about an often harsh, rural past, meant that they could share their experiences of sudden, intensely present memories. It is a form of remembering with an intrusive quality that irritates Smedberg: ‘... One is back there again. Dear Lord, how many times has it been? Always back, always crashing into the past, falling through some bloody trapdoor, stumbling back into it through one of the secret doors in the walls of the time-tunnel that seem always left open, waiting for you.’ Elsie agrees that the sudden and swift compulsive movement through time can be a curse: ‘Am I bewitched, I have wondered, perhaps stunted, incapable of leading the life of an aware grown-up? I have been angry, told myself off, shoved myself relentlessly back in the present.’ She rages on, but admits that she can’t escape her past. The girls of different ages, who were Elsie then, are still there, waiting to take her into one of their worlds once more.
Not all of Smedbergs’s published works are overtly autobiographical, but in ‘I am falling...’ he allows himself to explore freely the world beyond that trapdoor in time, and always lands, with the precision of a bee diving into a favoured flower, into beautifully precise moments in his past. Some are dimly remembered perceptions of how things felt: the happy wonder of the toddler playing by the burn, or the tense, wordless excitement of two teenage boys, doing dangerous things together – playing scary games, and exploring an untamed landscape of hills, forests and moors. Other, more articulate memories, focus on people. Those he grew up with remain the most enigmatic: a hard-working, evasive father, a clever, frustrated mother, a trusted brother. His mother’s father, the lead sports journalist at a local paper, and a kind man with a short fuse, is the first to be sharply observed.
One personality in particular stands out from the haze of reminiscence: Zenia Larsson, a sculptor who became a writer, and the mentor of the young poet Åke Smedberg. Larsson was once Szajna Marcinkowska, a Polish woman. She arrived in Sweden in 1945, alone, exhausted and emaciated after six years in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Szajna’s transformation into Zenia was astonishing: she learned Swedish well enough to be accepted as a pupil at the Stockholm Art College by 1947 and had become a published writer in Swedish by the early 1970s. Smedberg was, and seems still to be fascinated by Zenia, for all the obvious reasons, as well as for her fiercely independent attempt to distance herself from her past by making it the subject of three novels. He acknowledges how important she was to his career as a poet and writer, after his previous rolling-stone existence of travelling and casual jobs. His love of poetry surfaces in his precise, flowing language, although, eventually, fiction in the form of short stories and novels came to dominate his published works. Smedberg’s books add up to a national treasure, largely hidden from foreign eyes; he is described in Sweden as ‘one of our most loved and valued writers’.
Some countries develop truly original literary traditions; identifying individuals with the wild nature that surrounds them seems an essential component of Swedish literature. I would suggest that ‘I’m falling …’ belongs – in a good way – to a Swedish genre: stories of ‘ordinary people’ set in vividly remembered locations, mostly northern. A recent, much-praised example comes to mind: Osebol: Voices from a Swedish Village by Marit Kapla, translated into English by Peter Graves. The form is not quite the usual story-telling, but recorded interviews with locals, edited and transcribed into poetic prose; the setting is the author’s own home village, an authentically northern place (forests, hills, waterways), remote, beautiful and gradually impoverished by the lack of jobs and of young people.
Smedberg does not idealise nature. His literary programme is two-fold, at least if one is to believe the ambiguous final section of ‘I am falling…’. First, a long appeal (in italics) to the many small gods of nature, all uncaring and mostly unrelatable to: ‘… I have never asked anything from you. Not until now. But I beg you: do something about sadness. About human grief. Sadness that rises out of the ground, follows the rain down, lives on in the water, the wind, the dark and the light. This passage is followed by a pastoral little story of two boys watching a middle-aged couple enjoying their summer evening together, quietly looking out over the pretty lake in front of their cabin. Ordinary, contented love of nature, shared.
Jag faller som en sten genom tiden genom livet
Albert Bonniers förlag, 2021
Foreign rights: Maria Montner, Bonnier Rights.
Åke Smedberg has been awarded several literary prizes during his career. Recent awards, include being the first recipient of the newly created Elsie Johansson Prize (2022). Smedberg was nominated for the 2022 Norrland literature prize for Jag faller som en sten; it was won by Kerstin Ekman (adults) and Moa Backe Åstot (YA).
Den uppgrävda jorden
by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom
reviewed by B.J. Woodstein
Den uppgrävda jorden (Excavated Earth) is Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s second graphic novel. Her first, Palimpsest, was a memoir about her search for her Korean origins. In that work, she peeled back the layers of the stories she was told in order to understand why she was given up and who she really was and what it meant to be Korean and Swedish.
Now, in this second book, Sjöblom explores the story of Maria, a woman adopted from Chile to Sweden. Based on in-depth interviews and extensive research, but with a narrative that reads almost like a fast-paced thriller, Den uppgrävda jorden aims to give voice to all those who have been silenced.
It’s a devastating, harrowing story. Maria Diemar finds out that her adoption papers are not accurate and contain contradictory details, but when she questions this, she is told that women who gave up their children for adoption were ashamed and lied about their situations. Further investigation shows that this simply is not what happened, for Maria’s mother or most of the other Chilean mothers whose children ended up in Sweden. Sjöblom writes about how certain Swedes working in Chile basically used Chilean hospitals as baby mills for childless Swedish families, while the Swedish government and the Adoptioncentrum (a non-profit adoption agency and organisation in Sweden) ignored the facts about where these babies were coming from. Many Chilean women, usually poor and often indigenous, were told that their babies had died at birth or that they couldn’t care for them. When the women requested to see their supposedly dead babies or to discuss the situation, they were ignored and told more lies. Meanwhile, the babies were spirited away, taken to foster carers or orphanages and then on to Sweden, where adoptive parents were likewise not told the truth about where the babies had come from.
Maria was one of those babies, as was her brother, who was stolen from a different mother but adopted by the same family. As an adult, Maria goes on a quest to learn what happened in Chile all those years ago and in the process, she founds a meeting-place on the internet for other Chilean adoptees, makes news headlines in Sweden, travels to Chile multiple times and tries to bring both the Chilean and Swedish organisations and governments to reckoning. While raising her own children, she takes on the stories of so many other adoptees who have long felt that there is something missing from their lives, and she also begins to meet the mothers, who have spent years, often decades, desperately trying to discover what actually happened to their children. In some cases, she even helps mothers and children reunite. In her brother’s case, his suicidal tendencies and deep depression lift as he understands who he truly is, and he even ends up going to live in Chile.
The colour palate for Sjöblom’s illustrations is natural, heavy on the browns, with hints of green and grey, matching the earth of the title. The earth – or truth – is being dug up, excavated, examined. The images and the text both make visible stories that had been buried and left to rot.
This book is not an easy read, but it is important testimony, telling us about crimes that have been and still are being committed: mothers robbed of their children, babies whose identities and families are taken from them, corrupt people making money off of those who are desperate. Beautiful and touching, it is sure to advance the adoption rights movement around the world.
Den uppgrävda jorden
Foreign rights: Sofia Olsson, Galago, Ordfront
Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom is a graphic designer, illustrator and activist. She has studied at Södertörn University and the Comic Art School in Malmö. Her debut, Palimpsest, was published in English (tr. Hanna Stromberg) by Drawn&Quarterly in 2019 and was nominated for the VLA Graphic Novel Diversity Award.
by Lydia Sandgren
reviewed by Kathy Saranpa
A single volume called ‘Collected Works’ appears to be either a sad testament or a joke. The title evokes leather-bound volumes in a university library, by prolific writers such as Shakespeare or Strindberg, and not a debut novel. Lydia Sandgren thus surprises her readers before they even open her mammoth of a book (at almost 700 pages). But the reader who dares to do so will be richly rewarded. Sandgren succeeds in painting intriguing, full-bodied characters and placing them in a credible, intricate plot. And although this is not yet another iteration of Scandinavian noir, Sandgren scatters clues to the unfolding of events with the skill of a seasoned crime writer. A passing mention of a pair of worn-out women’s running shoes, a tossed-off denigrating remark about gay men – these are details whose importance the reader only perceives long after their appearance.
As the novel opens, Gothenburg publisher Martin Berg, arguably the protagonist (excerpts from a protracted interview with him serve as chapter introductions), is lying on the floor with what we could call his ‘collected works’ surrounding him – nearly all of them unfinished. He’s middle-aged, separated, about to have his last chick fly the nest. His life revolves around the office, the fitness studio, the market and home, with occasional evenings out. His daughter Rakel is studying psychology at university, although he’s quite sure she’d make as excellent a translator as her mother. His son Elis seems to be following a path into discovery of French culture and style, and is typically surly and absent. Martin prepares a delicious meal for his son’s birthday and assigns his daughter the task of reading a German novel, Ein Jahr der Liebe, to determine whether Berg’s company should obtain the foreign rights for Swedish.
Narration of the present time of the novel is alternated with flashbacks, and it is here that we encounter the other two members of the triumvirate forming the character core of the novel. Martin meets Gustav Becker in high school and they become nearly inseparable. Gustav will eventually become an acclaimed painter but, unfortunately, also descend into alcoholism. A few years after they meet, Berg encounters Cecilia Wikner, who will become his wife. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, they say, and by the same token, the reader must become extremely fond of this character, because we never see her in the novel’s present. Instead she is mediated through the narrative of other characters as well as in descriptions of oil paintings in high-end galleries and in Becker’s messy studio apartment in Stockholm. We eventually learn that Cecilia left Martin and their children abruptly years ago and has not been in contact with any of them since. In the novel’s present, Martin is still in love with her, still wears his wedding ring, and mostly avoids connecting with other women.
As the novel progresses, the focus widens to develop Rakel’s character. Her father has nagged her about reporting on the German novel – a task she really does not want, but like her father, she is a pleaser – and eventually she begins to read it. As she gets further and further into the text, she discovers that it is about her mother, and that it may hold clues to where she is. She eventually makes contact with the author and finds out that he and her mother had an affair after Cecilia left Martin. As the novel closes, Rakel and Elis are standing at the foot of stairs that will lead them to their mother’s flat.
In a curious penultimate section, Martin’s ‘collected works’ are summarized, but immediately thereafter there comes a scene from his early adulthood that we have not yet seen: Martin and Gustav in bed together. Is this a dream? Did it really happen? An alternate, reader’s choice ending? If it hadn’t been clear before, the reader now sees the obvious: Gustav has been in love with Martin all these years. The throwaway remark about not wanting to go somewhere that was ‘crawling with [insert offensive term for gay men]’ must have torn Gustav’s heart in two. However, without it, the brilliant paintings of Cecilia may have never existed – nor, then, this story.
Collected Works is a tour de force and it is hard to think of another debut novel with so much promise and heft. Longing and memory drive the story, but it’s also a novel about writing – something intimately involved with both of these.
Albert Bonniers förlag, 2020
Foreign rights: Astri von Arbin Ahlander, Ahlander Agency
Samlade verk won the 2020 August Prize for Best Swedish Fiction Book of the Year. It is due to be published in the US in April 2023 by Astra House in Agnes Broomé’s translation.
Lydia Sandgren was born in 1987 in Gothenburg and is the oldest of seven siblings. She studied philosophy and literature in addition to psychology. She works as a psychologist in Gothenburg.
(Off the Rails)
by Moa Romanova
reviewed by Darcy Hurford
The night before Moa flies to the States to accompany her friends Åsa and Lina on tour with their band, the Shit Kids, she has a strange dream. Someone from her past – a girl, coloured grey in contrast to the colourfulness of Moa’s messy flat – appears beside her bed. When she wakes up, she feels uneasy. Memories of an event from her teenage years have come back to her.
The aim of her trip seems simple: spend more time on her art projects, and hang out with her friend Åsa. Particularly the latter, of whom Moa says on a FaceTime call to another friend, ‘When she’s away, I feel completely unbalanced, like a cat in a t-shirt’. She arrives in LA, settles in to her accommodation (host: Buzz, friend of Kurt Cobain) and catches up with Åsa and Lina. The past doesn’t let go of Moa though, and a photo of Kurt at Buzz’s house makes her think back to her school friend Sofia, who took her own life. Nor has Moa reckoned with the effect that all the drugs, alcohol and lack of sleep will have on them. Åsa goes AWOL, last seen in the company of her heroine-addicted crush Dylan, re-awakening Sofia’s memory even more powerfully and leaving Moa to just hope history isn’t about to repeat itself.
This is not a text-heavy graphic novel. The dialogue conveys the story in tandem with the images, carrying it along but not dominating the page. The dream sequence that opens the book, for instance, is virtually wordless. På glid is very much a visual experience, narrated by images more than words. As with Romanova’s previous graphic novel (Alltid fucka upp, published in 2018), the colour scheme helps tell the story. Moa’s dreams of Sofia are mostly in grey, with odd details in other colours, while daily life is depicted in a bright sugary palette reminiscent of necklace sweets and My Little Pony.
It’s an aesthetic that combines the ugly and the pretty to great effect. The juxtaposition of girly colours with the grimmer parts of the story are a sizeable part of what makes it so effective. Bodies are given distorted forms: people have massive legs and ears; heads pin-small, eyes enormous. As in Romanova’s debut novel, there’s an eighties influence at work here: grass green, fuchsia pink, pastel colours, and the details of digital clocks, and oddly angular buildings, with colour effects that look like they could have been done with the Paint Spa program. It is most definitely set in the present time, though: there are lots of smartphones and lots of apps in evidence, and the characters spend a considerable amount of time messaging each other. Not that technology makes life simpler. When Moa’s Uber doesn’t turn up, she ends up falling down some steps and lies in a flowerbed for some time, transforming over six images from ‘unconscious’ to ‘Day of the Dead skeleton with a flowerhead in each eye socket’ before eventually being taken ‘home’ to Jeff’s by the police.
There are funny moments too. Romanova is not afraid of the grotesque (there is one particularly gynaecological moment where Åsa’s tampon has ended up sitting sideways and she needs Moa’s help in getting it out) or the daft (on the flight over from Sweden, Moa hallucinates that the people around have turned into characters from Lord of the Rings). There are ample absurd moments: In Austin, Texas, the first stop before LA, they stay with Jeff, Camille and their chihuahua/pitbull cross Boss, a weird looking but indulged dog. Jeff also takes them to a shooting range and a rodeo. På glid is also a moving story; the characters might be obnoxious at times and over-keen on substances… well, pretty much all of the time, but they are also likeable and easy to empathise with.
Fortunately it all ends happily. They finally receive news of Åsa’s whereabouts, and this time the Uber Moa takes to pick Åsa up actually arrives. Eventually they make up and all three return to Sweden. An epilogue describes their lives now, three years later.
Foreign rights: Thomas Olsson, Kaunitz-Olsson förlag
Moa Romanova studied art in Gothenburg and at the Comic Art School in Malmö. Her debut novel, Alltid fucka upp appeared in 2018 and has been translated into eight languages, including English (Goblin Girl, 2020, Fantagraphics, translated by Melissa Bowers), which received an Eisner Award in 2021.
(The Twin Sisters)
by Pauline Riccius
reviewed by Ann Henning Jocelyn
In Sweden, ever since the 1970s, the adoption of children from less developed countries has been considered highly commendable. It has even been suggested that people with a social conscience should adopt children in need of parents rather than have offspring of their own. Only recently has media attention been directed towards these children adopted from faraway countries. How do they rate the experience of being uprooted, of being made to live their lives in a society for which they were not intended?
The Twin Sisters is the first literary account I have seen dealing with this issue. It follows the life of two young sisters adopted from a Thai orphanage by a Swedish couple, driven less by social commitment than by a genuine longing to have a child. A foreign adoption seems to be the only option to have their wish fulfilled. When they arrive in Thailand to collect their little girl and find her clinging to a twin sister, they make a snap decision to adopt them both.
Whether or not this adoption was an attempt to save an ailing marriage, it ends in divorce, partly due to the strain the adoption places on their everyday life. The children need much emotional and psychological support, and it is obvious that the mother bears the brunt of providing it, despite all Swedish facilities to enable each parent to maintain a full-time career on an equal basis. The divorce brings a second upheaval for the twins. They move into a flat with their mother, while the father keeps the family home. He embarks on a new relationship, and has a daughter of his own.
From this point, the novel follows the progress of the twin sisters, charting their struggle with feelings of rootlessness and exclusion. Well aware that they are different from Swedish children, not least physically, they rely on their internal closeness for comfort, even when their respective trajectories diverge. Liv escapes into the world of classical ballet, for which she has a particular talent, enough to win her a place at Sweden’s National Ballet School. Linn, meanwhile, concentrates on her studies and becomes a nurse specialising in providing support for the terminally ill.
In due course, their persistent feeling of not belonging is eclipsed by more pressing concerns: envy and intrigue in the world of ballet for Liv; health problems for Linn. Liv pushes herself to the limits of physical endurance, but her skill and commitment remain challenged by male power and sexual harassment. She walks away from her one emotional involvement with a visiting American dancer when he wants her to join him in New York. Perhaps being uprooted once is enough for her, not to mention the pain of being separated from Linn.
When Linn’s illness turns out to be genetically conditioned, Liv decides to travel to Thailand to find out more about their background. The country she explores is a far cry from the image presented to international tourists. In the deprived conditions of her biological family, she reconnects with the part of herself that has always been missing.
The Twin Sisters is a well-structured and fluidly told novel, depicting the emotional dynamics of a marriage as well as the sustained strength of mother-, daughter-, and sisterhood. The story is told with much empathy through the perspective of the three women. It gives a clear picture of the human psychology of loneliness, of the wish to belong and be validated, along with the need to find your own way in life. It is interesting that the twin girls succeed better in life than their adoptive Swedish mother, who ends up lonely and disillusioned.
The descriptions of Thailand are convincing and evocative, as are the impressions of somewhat dull daily life in a Swedish county town. The world of classical ballet stands out in its intensity, notwithstanding the dark shadows overhanging it.
One thing I missed in this book, perhaps a sign of my close involvement with its characters, was more detail about the sisters’ intimate experiences, especially in relation to the men with whom they become involved. However, this may not be what the author intended the book to be about.
Louise Bäckelin Förlag, 2021.
Foreign rights: Louise Bäckelin
Pauline Riccius has worked in the publishing industry for over twenty years. Tvillingsystrarna is her literary debut.
Vänta på vind
(Waiting for the Wind)
by Oskar Kroon
reviewed by Henry Jeppesen
Oskar Kroon is quickly becoming a tour de force in Swedish children’s literature. In addition to writing books, he has also qualified in journalism, and, of all things, baking. In his novel-writing career, which started in 2018, he has so far cooked up (sorry – I couldn’t resist the pun) five books and contributed to one more. In Vänta på vind, which won the 2019 August Prize for Sweden’s best children’s book of the year, he deals with many themes, including a few that a lot of 9-12-year-old children (the target readership for this novel) might have first-hand experience of. These include death, which is a recurring theme in some of his other works - some children lose grandparents at this age, and it can seem like the end of the world, especially if you are particularly close to them – as well as topics such as fractured relationships between parents and not fitting in at school.
Everything in Vinga’s life on the Swedish mainland is falling apart. She is a teenage girl whose parents have split up, and who is about to start a new school in the autumn. However, she has one solace: she is spending the summer holiday on a small, idyllic and windswept island off the west coast of Sweden with her grandad, an old sea dog, who has travelled the world and who Vinga wishes to emulate. She has a great relationship with him, and he calls her ‘captain’. He has also given her a small boat, and throughout the summer they make it seaworthy in preparation for its maiden voyage. One day, she meets another young girl, Ruth, who hates the sea, and who isn’t too keen on the island either, but has no choice but to stay there as she has to help her granny, the proprietress of the shop in the only village on the island. Slowly, but surely, Vinga forms a friendship with Ruth. The friendship has one blip: when Ruth finds a dead porpoise on the beach, but Vinga gets the plaudits from the local and national media who think that she found the dead animal. Yet they soon become friends again, and in the end, they share a couple of kisses and promise to stay in touch. Eventually, towards the end of the summer - shortly after Vinga’s step-mum has given birth to a baby boy - Vinga’s grandad dies, and she is understandably devastated.
However, a few weeks before this, her grandad rightly predicts that a storm is a-comin’, happily takes the wheel of the small passenger ferry on which they are travelling from its seasick captain and steers it back to the mainland, with Vinga as his faithful assistant. You can be sure that the old man is chuckling about this to himself in the afterlife.
In case you’re wondering, the phrase ‘waiting for the wind’ appears in the novel when it is uttered by Vinga’s grandad on the first voyage of Vinga’s boat (and when there is no wind!). Incidentally, Ruth helps Vinga’s grandad finish work on the boat while she is still on the mainland (he returns to the island before she does).
I would definitely be interested in reading more of Kroon’s work, even though I am slightly older than the target audience of Vänta på vind and his other creations (I’m 47!). The book, I’m certain, like the author, has a bright future in the English-speaking world. The language used is easy to understand, and the subject matter is adventurous (e.g. death and same-sex relationships) yet at the same time not too difficult for its intended readers to digest. As for his future work, I’m sure many more awards await, Oskar!
Vänta på vind
Brombergs bokförlag, 2019
Foreign rights: Carin Bacho Carniani, Koja Agency
Oskar Kroon made his debut as a children’s writer in 2018 with Mitt fönster mot rymden (My Window to Space). Vänta på vind (Waiting for the Wind) won the 2019 August Prize for Sweden’s best children’s book of the year. Överallt och ingenstans (Everywhere and Nowhere) was reviewed by Fiona Graham in SBR 2021:1.