by Agnes Lidbeck
reviewed by Margaret Dahlström
The length of Nikes bok can seem daunting or off-putting. But as the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that the large cast of characters require this time and space, as they each take their turn in the spotlight and the complexities and interactions of the narrative events are explored.
The novel covers four decades and traces several generations of three families, close friends in a fictional town on the south-east coast of Sweden. The opening section recounts an incident in 1982, in which Nike, a toddler at the time, is on the beach with her mother, as the other two families picnic nearby. Nike’s mother has mental health issues, and Nike is left briefly unattended in the water. The other families save the child and look for the mother, who is found nearby, semi-conscious and seemingly unaware of her surroundings. The narrator labels this ‘the first disaster’, and refers to the ripple effect it will have for years to come.
This introduces a tension to the reading experience. The reader knows more disasters will follow – and they do. This is not to suggest that the narrative is endless doom and gloom – although it has its fair share of that – but even as the positive and the everyday unfold, a sense of foreboding remains because of what has been foreshadowed. From time to time the narrator gives direct indications of forthcoming misfortune, such as ‘if they had said what they meant, it could have turned out differently’.
Nike, often called Nikky, is central to the plot but not always in the narrative focus. In fact, no individual is central to the narrator’s account; the focus shifts from character to character, family to family. Initially the main players are the adults, the parents of the families, with the children largely in the background as a group, barely distinguished from one another. But as they grow, so do their roles in the narrative until, as adults, they are given as much narrative attention as their parents. Nikky’s part in the first disaster anchors her to the chronological starting point of the narrative, whose timeframe from then on is her life up to the publication of her book. But the ripples, events following that first disaster, primarily affect other characters.
Nikky’s early life and the habits of her childhood acquire a significance of their own as she grows up. Her childhood bedroom is a curtained section of her parents’ room, and her early understanding of the world is informed by what she overhears. She subsequently develops the habit of actively eavesdropping, and becomes a keen observer of details of her surroundings. From an early age she makes drawings and then notes of what she learns, and later keeps a diary. As an adult she becomes an author, initially writing romances but then an account of the events experienced by the three families.
But the novel we read is not Nikky’s book. Her account of the lives of the people around her would, presumably, have much in common with the narrator’s account. But Nikky writes what she has seen and heard, whereas the omniscient narrator’s version is a step removed: it is an overview which includes scenes and events that Nikky could not know about, as well as those she does. The reader learns from the narrator about one of the disasters known only to three of the characters: the two it involved, and Nikky, who was told about it by one of them. Her own account of this incident comes as a huge shock to the other characters, and causes a shift in dynamics, both within the families and between them.
It takes the reader (this reader, at least) some time to really engage with the narrative. The narrator does capture attention and retain the reader’s interest, but the gradual development, warts and all, of so many characters may be a factor in the reader not feeling invested in them. And when it does come, the engagement is likely to be less with one or more particular characters, and more with the movement of the plot, the interconnection between the families, and the lasting nature of (most of) the friendships and relationships. The strong bonds, the care for family and friends, and the deep understanding of each other – all of them tested, but not destroyed, by Nikky’s revelation – are the qualities which ultimately draw the reader in and leave a lasting impression.
Foreign rights: Catherine Mörk, Norstedts Agency
Nikes Bok was shortlisted for Svenska Dagbladet’s Literature Prize 2021.
Agnes Lidbeck made her debut with 2017's Finna sig, which was awarded Borås Tidningen's Debutant Prize. This was followed by the well-received Förlåten and Gå förlorad.