by Sara Bergmark Elfgren
reviewed by Joanna Flower
History is the unifying theme of Sara Bergmark Elfgren’s Norra Latin (marketed as ‘In Dreams’), her first solo project as a novelist. In this Young Adult novel, which has received great acclaim in Sweden, the history of the theatre, of film, of art, of Stockholm and of architecture, as well as personal history, are some of the threads woven into the story of two fifteen-year old girls who begin theatre studies at Norra Latin Upper Secondary School, a prestigious school of the arts in central Stockholm.
The novel has two narrators. Tamar loves Harry Potter and Shakespeare. She is a sensitive and introverted outsider, whose Georgian parents left their homeland to live in northern Sweden, and who struggles to adapt to the elitist atmosphere of her Stockholm smart-set classmates. Clea is already a celebrity, with an actress mother, a childhood spent in therapy, and a huge social media following. Tamar and Clea are worlds apart, and all that connects them is their love of acting.
But there is more to Norra Latin than meets the eye. There have long been stories about a terrible tragedy that occurred during a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 1940s, in which a teacher died and a student mysteriously disappeared. When Tamar is haunted by supernatural experiences at the school, her life inexorably moves closer and closer to Clea’s.
Norra Latin (which was, in fact, a real secondary school in Stockholm – albeit not a drama school – until the 1980s, when it became a conference centre) is the axis around which the action takes place. Sara Bergmark Elfgren has clearly done a prodigious amount of research in the service of this novel, and the result is richly informative. From the 1944 Ingmar Bergman film, Hets (Torment), which was set in Norra Latin, and which shows close parallels with part of this novel’s story, to the classic Stockholm writer Hjalmar Söderberg (himself an alumnus of the school), to the history of the theatrical mask and the spells that Shakespeare wrote into Macbeth, there is a great deal of interesting myth, legend and intertextuality woven into this novel.
However, at times, it does feel as if Norra Latin is two books in one. There are two major storylines here, the first being the difficulties of finding your way in the world and of remaining true to yourself. The second is the fantasy storyline, where the ghost of the student who disappeared seventy years ago comes back to wreak revenge. Sara Bergmark Elfgren does the first exceptionally well; her descriptions of the sharp-elbowed students and social hierarchies sit very well alongside the avalanche of social media updates and the presentation of a life in digital form which is very different from reality. Yet the real action in the second storyline – the fantasy element of the book – only properly starts to get going halfway through the novel, and, at times, the gaps in the fantasy plotline are so long that the suspense risks being lost, so much so that that part of the story almost feels forgotten. Perhaps it is simply a question of pacing, but there are times when it feels difficult to justify the novel’s 578 pages.
That said, Norra Latin is without doubt a highly entertaining read, with the anxieties of the teenage experience handled with great delicacy and finesse. The supernatural and more mysterious elements are well-conceived, although perhaps not as convincing as the rest of the universe that Sara Bergmark Elfgren has created here. The overall reading experience, however, is such that it is no surprise at all to read that the novel has sparked a huge number of glowing reviews by young adult readers and critics alike.
Rabén & Sjögren
Rights: Grand Agency, Lotta Jämtsved Millberg
Norra Latin won Best YA-of-the-year in 2018, Swedish Audio Award.