by Sara Gordan
reviewed by Anna Paterson
Natten was an instant success with the public as well as the critics. The central story of troubled, loving parenthood feels urgent, as do the wrenching problems of wanting – and needing – to lead an independent professional life. True, such issues are staples of the ever-ongoing work v. life debate, but Natten stands out because of the author’s intellectual control of her fragmented narrative. Young children generate discontinuities, and Sara Gordan, the seeker of existential patterns, found motherhood a fundamentally disordered form of reality. Gordan is a specialist in modern French literature and a risk-taking experimental novelist, who wrote her thesis on reiterations and juxtapositions of events and forms and made deceptive recurrences the theme in her first three prose works.
Gordan has degrees in French and literary studies, and had an early career as a newspaper book critic. She is an accomplished translator of French literature, including works by Hélène Cixous and Michel Houellebecq. Her personal writing began with two book-length stories (2006 and 2009): En barnberättelse (About Childhoods) and Uppställning med albatross (Display with Albatross). Ostensibly very different, both stories play around with patterns of human behaviour rearranged in ways that seem alternatingly vengeful, erotic and absurdly funny. These themes are not a million miles away from the narrative in her first ‘regular novel’ Martin Andersson – ett skuggspel (M A – a Shadow Play, 2013). The eponymous protagonist is ‘a man in flight from himself’ who engages with fictitious and real Others as a distraction.
Do reiterations in any sense shape her story of being a parent? In a way, heartbreakingly so. Sara Gordan’s first child was born dead; her second, a daughter, had a malignant facial tumour at birth, and, at the age of four, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes; her third, a son, had a heart abnormality that caused near-fatal episodes of tachycardia, curable with heart surgery only when his body had grown large enough; it took ten years. Looking after two children, sometimes ‘normal’ and sometimes hovering scarily between life and death, wore down Gordan’s own health. Later, in a new marriage, she bore a healthy child but says, angrily: ‘I detest words like “normal” and “healthy” […] When I was pregnant and in hospital with a pulmonary embolism, my [new] husband seemed baffled. And said: “I don’t know … everyone in my family is healthy.” As if it were a feat. A personality trait, a characteristic of a better class of people.’
Gordan addresses much of the book to her daughter, a playful child who grew into a rebellious teenager, fed up with diabetes, blablabla. Her son was a quiet boy, usually – but not always sufficiently – doped by the medication needed to calm his heart. The vivacity of the little girl was spookily reflected in the brittleness of her metabolism: as her blood glucose levels yo-yo, Mum wakes through the night, ready with bananas for the lows and insulin for the highs. Her first husband, the children’s father, is there and not there. He loves his children, cares for them but, we guess, wishes he didn’t have to. A Frenchman with a first wife and kids in France, and a musician with too few gigs, he grows increasingly alienated from his situation in Stockholm.
Gordan’s first fifteen years of parenthood were first shared, then solitary – Je ne t’aime plus says her husband, literally and metaphorically turning his face to the wall. The fragmentation of her life is reflected in the studied disorder of her prose. She is in charge and yet not; at times, her mind goes into stasis: ‘I can read again now but not write. I begin but then things fall apart and my only subject seems to be illnesses. I said [in an arty discussion group] that I have a text that won’t let itself be written. It’s about children and disease and I can’t find the words, it feels inadmissible somehow.’
But Sara Gordan did find all the words she needed and has marshalled them into a fascinating narrative. And a witty one, too: for all its seriousness, Natten couldn’t be further from the dreary ‘misery novel’ scenario.
Albert Bonniers forlag, 2022.
Foreign rights: Siri Lindgren, Nordin Literary Agency.
The Night was an immediate success and awarded the magazine Vi’s Literary Prize for best novel 2022: 'Sara Gordan brings her authorship to the next level.' The book was selected for the Karl Vennberg prize awarded by the prestigious literary Society of Nine and the Best Novel 2022 prize by the leading newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.