by Malin Lindroth
reviewed by Fiona Graham
‘To reclaim the word “spinster” is not in any way dangerous, destructive or pitiable – quite the reverse. […] All I am doing when I call myself a spinster is acknowledging my own story. I am demanding the right to talk about what I’ve seen and the things I know. And I’m doing this in the conviction that once I own my own narrative, I can be free of other narratives, those told by our culture, which have never been any use to me.’
Malin Lindroth’s subject is what it feels like, as a heterosexual woman, to live alone permanently, despite having made every effort to pursue a long- term relationship. Her stated aim is to ‘reclaim’ the word ‘nucka’ (spinster or old maid), just as words like ‘bög’ (gay) or ‘funkis’ (a person with a disability) have been repurposed. Others have claimed to do the same thing: Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, is among the examples cited. However, according to Briallen Hopper (writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books), Bolick is both historically inaccurate, and disingenuous in her use of the term. Lindroth, by contrast, writes about 19th- century women who did not necessarily wish to remain unmarried, and about the contemporary experience of being permanently and unwillingly single in a society where the norm is coupledom and the extended family no longer provides the support and sustenance it might once have done.
Whether Lindroth’s approach genuinely ‘reclaims’ the word itself is moot. Admittedly, she strongly supports the right to live in ways that are not based on the traditional norm, and criticises society’s tendency to label single and childless women as failures. While she acknowledges that the lot of ageing bachelors is often unenviable too, she argues that single women tend to be socially stigmatised in uniquely cruel ways. Her social critique takes women’s right to be considered full human beings in their own right – fought for by generations of feminists – as a self-evident truth. But Lindroth is not taking up arms for the right to live alone, far from it. Her spinsterhood is not a lifestyle choice.
At the core of this book is its exploration of loneliness and the pain and humiliation of rejection. After one sustained relationship in her early twenties, which ended for reasons Lindroth does not clarify, her life has been marked by one rejection after the other. In bleak moments she hears a chorus of fifteen men – her unrequited loves – chanting ‘Not you, not you, not you.’ She describes her attempts to make herself indispensable to men with a certain standing in the literary world, giving feedback on their writing and helping with proofreading. She even admits to having played a geisha-like role, giving endlessly without reciprocation. These passages are painful to read: why should an intelligent woman with a successful literary career allow herself to be used in this way? On the other hand, one has to admire Lindroth’s honesty. It takes courage to write so uncompromisingly about being belittled, taken for granted and, on occasion, mocked.
Malin Lindroth’s essay is a cautionary tonic to the contemporary nostrums of positive thinking and self-help, as well as to the notion that we should expect to ‘have it all’. For many people, real life is harsher and bleaker than that. What Lindroth ‘reclaims’ is ultimately the right to be seen and listened to even if your life history deviates from all the usual patterns, the right to own the narrative about yourself. Almost paradoxically, for a book that reveals so much inner pain, it is a profound lesson in self-respect.
Norstedts, 2018. 117 pages.
Rights: Norstedts Agency, Catherine Mörk.
English sample, translated by Anne H. Berman, available from the agent.
Malin Lindroth is a poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, literature critic and columnist. Her debut novel, Vaka natt, was reviewed by Irene Scobbie in SBR 1999:1.
It was translated by Laurie Thompson as Night Watch, Toby Press, 2000.
Her novella När tågen går förbi appeared in English translation by Julia Marshall: Train Wreck, Annick Press (Canada), 2010.