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Stacken review

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Issue number: 2024:1



(The Ant Hill)

by Annika Norlin
reviewed by Margaret Dahlstrom

Annika Norlin is known in Sweden primarily as a musician. She has previously published two books – a volume of her song lyrics and a collection of short stories. Stacken (The Ant Hill) is her first novel.

Central to the narrative is a kind of commune: a group of people who for various reasons reject mainstream society and settle on an isolated property beside a forest. They have not made a collective decision to adopt this lifestyle; rather, they join individually or in twos, as chance or circumstances lead them there. The reader first sees this group from a distance, and their unconventional behaviour is described, such as talking to trees and the lake but not much to each other.

A second thread to the narrative unfolds before this first one develops far. A city woman, Emelie, experiences professional and social burnout and a consequent breakdown. A Sámi neighbour prescribes nature as a means of healing. Spending time outdoors helps, so much so that Emelie leaves her city home and moves into a tent near a lake. During her walks she notices and quietly observes the group.

The group thread falls into sub-threads, which present the backstories of the individual members, and explore their experiences and relationships within the group. There is a striking variety in their backgrounds, circumstances and personalities – indeed, they seem to have very little in common. Yet each finds a role in the group. What seem like peculiarities at first glance have developed over time as group traditions with an internal logic. Their commitment to and communing with nature appears at times almost like a religion.

The image of the ant hill, introduced by the title, is explained and elaborated by the group's intellectual, an academic in the field of entomology. It seems apt, capturing the workers carrying out routine tasks for the collective good. But of course the humans in this colony show a much greater range of backgrounds, abilities and personalities than ants appear (to us) to have.

Because of this individuality, there are differences and some discontent within the group, in spite of their overall unity. The younger members, who have had less or no say in group decisions, are curious about the rest of the world. It is teenager Låke, born and raised in this isolated community, who first encounters Emelie, and each is struck by the other's ignorance. Låke has been raised to look down on mainstream society as Outsiders, while Emelie is shocked by Låke's inexperience and naïvety, and the restrictions imposed on him.

With this encounter, the narrative threads meet, and eventually Emelie joins the others. But her tendency to question and challenge keeps her an outsider to an extent, even after she is accepted into the group.

This novel has been well-received in Sweden, with an occasionally arising criticism that the threads and fragments of the text do not form a cohesive whole. In the opinion of this reader, this looseness was deliberate on the part of the author. It is inevitable that the human colony will be looser than its ant counterpart, and the narrative structure reflects this.

It is tempting to read this novel as a political allegory. Many elements are a close fit for such a reading: the development of ideas and values, as well as the hypocrisy and shifts in some of these – some members are more equal than others; total belief in the rightness of the group’s values and a rejection of alternatives; the working together for the common good and the emergence of a dominant figure. The ending, too – no spoilers here – is consistent with such an interpretation.

Annika Norlin leaning out of car door.
Annika Norlin. Photo: Sofia Runarsdotter.


Weyler Förlag, Sweden, 2023

399 pages

Foreign Rights: Anton Gustavsson, Weyler Förlag

Winner of Vi magazine's 2024 literature prize

Annika Norlin is known in Sweden primarily as a musician. She has previously published two books – a volume of her song lyrics and a collection of short stories, Jag ser allt du gör (I See Everything You Do, 2020), which was nominated for numerous major literary prizes including the August Prize. Stacken is her first novel.