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Systrarna review

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Issue number: 2024:1



(The Sisters)

by Jonas Hassen Khemiri
reviewed by Karin Filipsson

Acclaimed author Jonas Hassen Khemiri has written a magnum opus, magnificently weaving his magic pen over the pages, creating a narrative that balances expertly on the line between past and present, Sweden and America, reality and fiction. Just like in his previous novels, he keeps the reader constantly guessing and insatiably engaged as we follow the dramatic and unexpected journey of his characters, the three sisters of the book’s title and a writer named Jonas. It starts when they meet as children, living in the same area of Stockholm, and follows them until early middle age, and the time of the pandemic. Jonas is fascinated by the sisters, Tunisian-Swedes like him, but keeps losing track of them. Khemiri’s signature meta/auto-fictional narration requires precision and attention to detail, as well as a healthy dose of that particular kind of Khemirian magic, sprinkled in with irony and humor, which we have come to expect from him.

The massive novel spans over 723 pages and consists of seven chapters, each covering a shorter and shorter amount of time a year, six months, three months, a month, a week, a day, a minute  moving forward in time, all the way into the future, mirroring the way that we experience time as passing faster as we grow older. In addition, we travel with his characters, not only through time, but also geographically, from Stockholm, to Paris, to North Africa, and to New York City. Facts and historical details add flavor, as well as ambiguity, to the narrative and convey the unreliable nature, not just of the narration in the novel, but of our memories, and makes us question the nature of time and temporality as we know it.

For example, a young Jonas and one of the sisters, Evelyn, are at the Stockholm Water Festival in 1993, very close to the crash of the JAS plane, which actually happened, but when Evelyn remembers the incident, she has no memory of Jonas being there with her. Similarly, one of the sisters is convinced that they are related to one of the men in the famous photo ‘Lunch atop a Skyscraper’, from the construction of the Rockefeller Center, but the novel doesn’t reveal whether or not there is any truth to this. Furthermore, the last chapter of the novel, which covers one minute in New York City in 2035, feels as current and as real as any of the other sequences in the story, although it takes place in the future and thus, cannot be an autobiographical anecdote, not yet.

Throughout this wide-reaching, multi-dimensional novel, a curse is carried forth by the sisters, whose mother brought them up to believe they were under a curse, as well as the character named Jonas in the book: everything you love, you will lose. At times, the mad rushing through time and place, the desperate search for meaning, inflicts upon the reader a sense of urgency, and a desperate desire to make sure that hope wins over defeat and desperation. Jonas Hassen Khemiri first wrote the book in English, and he claims in interviews that he did so, because it was too difficult for him to express certain emotional memories and experiences in his native language, Swedish. The language is charged with the intensity of emotions, both in the portrayal of the pain and confusion of the breakdown of his family, in particular the sudden absence of his father, who disappears, but also in the description of the love story between Jonas and his girlfriend Emma:

I want to remember the summer of 1997 as fantastic, I want to say that we were in love in the way that only 18-year-olds can be, I want to claim that we were happy nonstop and that I for the first time, through Emma, felt like I belonged to the world, that I was connected to something outside myself, my thoughts, my books, and all of it is true, but it took only a few weeks before I started looking for flaws.

After writing the novel in English, Hassen Khemiri translated, or re-wrote it in Swedish, which is the language it is published in. This speaks to the intense emotional connection between the author Khemiri and the character Jonas in the novel and although the three Mikkola sisters are – probably? – fictional, it doesn’t make any difference to the reader, nor does it diminish the vividness of the novel. In The Sisters, Khemiri’s master mind brings us effortlessly into yet another world, allowing us to soar on the wings of his words, as they dance over the pages, pulling us in and making us feel like we are inexplicably and forever connected to the Mikkola sisters and to Jonas, as if we are all tied together by an invisible string.

Jonas Hassen Khemiri in blazer and shirt, resting fingers on his chin.
Jonas Hassen Khemiri. Photo: Max Burkhalter.


Albert Bonniers förlag, 2023, 723 pages

Foreign Rights: Anna-Karin Korpi-Öhlund, Albert Bonniers

Nominated for the 2023 August Prize for fiction

Jonas Hassen Khemiri debuted in 2003. Systrarna is his sixth novel. Books previously reviewed in Swedish Book Review include Montecore. En unik tiger (SBR 2008:1) which appeared in English as Montecore the Silence of the Tiger and Allt jag inte minns (SBR 2016:1) which appeared as Everything I Don’t Remember, both translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles. His 2018 novel Pappaklausulen was published as The Family Clause, translated by Alice Menzies.