New Year, new book, new review. I started 2023 with The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt; the first novella I’ve read from New Directions’ newly minted ‘Storybook ND’ series that also features works from the likes of Cesar Aira, Yoko Tawada, Osamu Dazai and so on. I had first read DeWitt’s striking novel The Lightning Rods several years ago (pre-blog) – a brilliant satire of the corporate world centred on a salesman who invents a controversial product, and what also made it interesting was the language, deliberately flat so that it reflected the tone of ‘corporate-speak.’
A novella at just 70 pages, I thought The English Understand Wool was marvellous, as good as everyone said it was; after all it would have been “mauvais ton” not to love it, wouldn’t it?
Our protagonist is Marguerite; a 17-year old young woman raised in Marrakech, her mother (Maman) has French roots, while the father is English. The phrase “mauvais ton” (loosely translated as ‘bad taste’) features regularly in Maman’s parlance who has strong opinions on the subject.
Maman is the doyenne of fine tastes and impeccable manners, qualities she wishes to imbue in her daughter. The English understand wool and Scots tweed, so Maman makes the journey all the way from Marrakech to the Outer Hebrides to buy this tweed and cultivate relationships with the finest weavers. But she travels to Paris to fashion suits because Parisians are the epitome of style while Scots have a “genius for fabricating atrocious garments.” When in Europe, Maman and Marguerite stay in lavish hotel suites with pianos. In Marrakech, as if money is no issue, Maman buys ‘riads’ (traditional Moroccan houses) to house her Moroccan staff. A Parisian Thai seamstress is hired to tailor mother and daughter’s clothes, while a ‘gifted graduate of the Conservatoire’ comes from Paris to impart music lessons to Marguerite. During the holy month of Ramadan, the family settles abroad, the staff is not required to travel with them but is given a full month’s pay.
The French understand wine, cheese, bread.
The Belgians understand chocolate.
The Italians understand coffee and ice cream.
The Germans understand precision, machines. (She in fact kept a Porsche in Paris.)
The Swiss understand discretion.
The Arabs understand honor, which embraces generosity and hospitality.
Clearly, Maman comes across as a conceited woman with superior standards, and she leaves no stone unturned in ensuring that the daughter becomes a connoisseur herself; a way of fine living that Marguerite perfects to the tee because she has known no other.
And then quite out of the blue, a crucial piece of information is revealed carrying massive weight that throws a different light on Marguerite’s current circumstances. She is only 17, but can she navigate these new shattering developments on her own solely relying on the knowledge gained from Maman? And how will she deal with the nosy parkers of the publishing world eager to strike a deal with her?
The English Understand Wool, then, is a wonderfully rendered tale brimming with all the hallmarks of DeWitt’s acerbic, deadpan prose. Right from the very beginning, her sardonic wit is on display whether she is commenting on the ludicrousness of Maman’s exacting ideals or poking fun at the way the publishing industry operates.
In many ways, the novella is a satire on the lengths to which one is willing to go to uphold the tenets of good taste. For instance, when she learns of the truth, Marguerite is beset by “extreme anxiety not to be guilty of mauvais ton.” There’s more…
I was conscious of a slighter anxiety. It would not be possible for quite some time, perhaps years, to go to the Thai seamstress – I would inevitably be followed, and whether or not this led to the apprehension of the fugitives it would certainly cause chagrins. Where was I to find a seamstress?
It’s an interesting novella because it also challenges the reader in how they perceive the situation that has unfolded, particularly, when it comes to family and maybe even trauma. Is Marguerite deeply disturbed by this sudden turn in her circumstances? Does she need to be? Is it necessary that her reactions conform to the dictates of modern society?
“I do not understand this grievance you expect me to feel.”
DeWitt also subtly makes digs at the publishing industry, the murky manner in which it functions, desperate to promote material having sensational value that will sell and connect with an audience, rather than accepting the truth of a version however unconventional. They are like vultures circulating around an alleged prey (in this case, Marguerite), always eager to profit from a distressing situation at whatever cost. But is 17-year old Marguerite naïve or is there more to her than meets the eye?
Just like in The Lightning Rods, DeWitt showcases a unique approach in capturing voice – here, atleast in most chapters, there is a formality and maybe even stuffiness to the prose that is intentional; Marguerite is after all the narrator and her haughty upbringing is accordingly reflected in her storytelling – factual and devoid of emotion.
The novella ends just as it had begun (“The English understand wool”), a very cleverly told tale of dubious morals where appearances can be deceptive; a fresh and highly original story that has only fuelled my appetite for more of Helen DeWitt’s work.
Will and Testament was my first novel by Vigdis Hjorth and it was just amazing. I now have Long Live the Post Horn to look forward to as well as her latest Is Mother Dead, a copy of which is already on its way to me. But in the meanwhile, this novel will 100% find a place on my best of the year list.
They say that to find a solution to a problem you need to admit that there’s a problem in the first place. How can you find ways to resolve the issue if you are not willing to accept the existence of the very issue that needs resolving? It’s the same with family and relationships. Families can be complex and complicated. Arguments, deep seated resentments and differing points of view can cause cracks in the familial structure that maybe hard to fix. While reconciliation is always a preferred option and healthy communication between various parties is one way of achieving this, what if there are certain instances where this is definitely not an option? Especially, in a scenario where a serious crime in the family has been committed and differing versions of it exist, where the victim’s version is not acknowledged because it challenges the other family members’ sense of self and makes them uncomfortable?
That is the central theme that underlines Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament – a powerful, gripping, masterfully constructed novel about family feuds, abuse, trauma and a woman’s fight to be believed and her story acknowledged, where Hjorth cleverly uses the set-up of an inheritance dispute to examine the deeper fissures that run in a dysfunctional family.
Our protagonist is Bergljot, working as a magazine editor in Oslo writing theatre reviews. Bergjlot is now in her late fifties or earlier sixties with three grown up children (Soren, Ebba and Tale) and grandchildren, is in a relationship with a man called Lars and close to her friends Klara and Karen always pillars of support whenever a crisis erupts and she desperately needs someone to talk to.
Will and Testament opens with the news that Bergjlot’s dad died five months ago, a development that only exacerbates the ongoing property dispute between the four children and the mother. Before his death, the father had made a will leaving the two family cabins at Hvalar to his youngest children Astrid and Asa at very low valuations, a fact that angers Bard the eldest child and only son.
Bard vehemently challenges the terms of the inheritance but he is pretty much contesting a lone battle when the mother, father, Astrid and Asa refuse to budge from their position. Bergjlot initially chooses to stay out of this clash, having severed contact with the family more than twenty years ago. The modern reader will immediately discern the reason for Bergjlot’s refusal to get entangled – having been abused by the father as a child, the subsequent ordeal and the scars from that incident made it easier for Bergjlot to completely cut contact with her family in order to maintain her sanity.
Which is one of the reasons she does not wish to get embroiled in the feud; she thinks if she hasn’t bothered keeping in touch with her family, she cannot expect to be entitled to any inheritance. And yet the unfairness of the entire affair given how inextricably it’s linked with her past, persistently nags her compelling her to finally join the row siding with Bard; the two elder children against their mother and younger siblings.
Bard, a victim of neglect and physical abuse himself, argues about the principle of the matter, that the disagreement over the inheritance is not so much about money as it is about acknowledging the trauma inflicted upon them by their father, a view Bergjlot also shares. Isn’t it fair that he gets entitled to a half of one of the cabins as a form of compensation for a very difficult childhood?
The fractured family dynamics rub off on their children too. Bard’s daughters refuse to have anything to do with their aunts and grandparents, a development that causes the mother much heartache as she fears losing them completely. It’s the same with Bergjlot’s children who also remain ambivalent. Her daughter Tale refuses to attend family gatherings, but Soren and Ebba attend these get-togethers to keep up appearances although these occasions leave them uneasy.
While distribution of the property is a bone of contention in the present, much of the drama takes place in Bergjlot’s past, the root of all the discord in subsequent years. Through much of her growing up years and even post marriage, the abuse remains repressed in Bergjlot, life continues as if it never happened. But what is repressed is bound to resurface later and Bergjlot finally confronts her family only to be stonewalled. Branded as a liar by her mother, the father’s denial and lack of support from Astrid and Asa who choose to remain silent; Bergjlot is finally compelled to cut all contact.
One of the striking aspects of Will and Testament are the superb character studies, Hjorth brilliantly captures the flawed personalities, fears and insecurities of not only Bergjlot but also those of the mother (Inga) and Astrid who are as damaged by the father’s actions but unwilling to admit them.
Bergjlot, particularly, is a richly drawn character struggling to be believed by a family that staunchly refuses to do so. Unsurprisingly and understandably Bergjlot’s scars run deep and manifests in the chaotic way her personal life pans out – she divorces her wealthy, “nice” husband when her children are young because she is deeply in love with an unscrupulous married man, a relationship that also ultimately sours prompting her to finally opt in for psychoanalysis as a step towards healing. Bergjlot’s severing of all ties with her damaged family works to her advantage, but she remains tormented by her mother’s digs and insults about her behaviour and her sisters’ refusal to accept her version of the past. She is deeply conflicted about a family that desperately tries to silence her while at the same time makes her feel guilty about her actions. She is flawed but vulnerable and it’s her dogged insistence on fighting back, on telling her story that lends the novel much of its power.
The mother is also a damaged individual, a woman with only looks to her credit with no money or prospects of her own, at the mercy of her husband, and unable to stand up for her children. Bergjlot’s mother has suspicions of her husband’s crime, but she chooses to look away. Having loved another man herself, that affair comes to nothing, and somewhere deep down she resents Bergljot for taking charge of her life which she considers a rebuke to her own inability to do so. Hjorth often refers to the Norwegian dramatist Ibsen in her depiction of the mother – in Ibsen’s The Doll House, Nora finally decides to abandon her husband and family in an attempt to begin life anew, a path the mother does not have the guts to embark on.
Mum didn’t feel good about herself. Mum was pretty, but had no education, no experience, no money, Mum was Dad’s possession, Dad was proud of his pretty possession, Mum radiated fear. Mum was innocent in the sense that she was inexperienced and naïve. Many men prefer and are attracted to inexperienced and naïve women, simple, childish ones who are easy to impress, awestruck, devoted, sincere, needy, those who don’t use irony, who don’t hold back. Mum was inexperienced, childish and chose to remain a child. If Mum had chosen to grow up, her reality would have become unbearable.
Astrid desires the best of both worlds; she wishes her family to reconcile but without acknowledging the event that caused the rupture in the first place. She projects herself as a good person who wants to keep up appearances, and adopt a diplomatic approach towards the matter at hand, without accepting that there are times when you need to take a stand however unpleasant and even if it means a further rift in the family.
That was her mistake, Astrid’s mistake. She claimed to be neutral, but deep down she wasn’t because sweet-talking everyone isn’t being neutral if one party has hurt the other, only she didn’t factor that in or she didn’t believe it. She didn’t seem to understand or be willing to accept that there were conflicts which couldn’t be resolved in the way she would like them to be, that there are situations which can’t be balanced out, talked over and round, where you have to pick a side.
Deep down, Astrid and Asa resent Bergjlot because they perceive her to be their parents’ favorite child given the attention they showered upon Bergjlot little realizing the nature of that attention. As grown-ups, Astrid and Asa maintain a strong relationship with their parents, a bond that also results in them benefitting financially, but their closeness with the parents and silence on the ‘unmentionable’ matter makes it very clear to Bergjlot whose side they are on even if they have not explicitly stated it. Asa, interestingly, is not much of a presence in the novel as Astrid, but that is because she does not care about mending relations in the way Astrid desperately does.
At its core, Will and Testament, is about a victim of abuse fighting back to be heard, about the legacy of abuse that can run down generations, how it can irreparably damage relationships. This is a first person account; Bergjlot is the narrator where the repetition of events and episodes reflects her anxious, feverish state of mind as she struggles to come to terms with what has happened to her. The frenzied internal monologues capture Bergjlot’s distress to brilliant effect, the mounting dread and anxiety she experiences every time she is required to come face to face with her family. The tension palpable in Bergjlot’s voice, a product of her fretful personality lends an intense, gripping quality to the narrative propelling it forward.
If Bergjlot has deliberately abandoned her family, why should she bother what they think? If she has long ago given up the idea of any inheritance, why change her stance? Can such a fractured family ever reconcile when they are so intent on denying her reality and are busy brushing things under the carpet? These are the questions that repeatedly swirl in Bergjlot’s mind and raise pertinent questions about the limits of forgiveness in a family which repeatedly denies the existence of a grave crime.
Was it any wonder that I had felt troubled and ambivalent towards someone who wanted proof and reconciliation at the same time? That was the impossibility, the untruth which had lain unspoken underneath all our conversations, which now turned out to have been nothing but lies.
I thought this was an absolutely fantastic novel, timeless in its themes, and especially relevant given how difficult it is for abused women to come forward and be believed even in the current #MeToo era.
I hadn’t heard of Elspeth Barker until in the last few months her only novel O Caledonia featured regularly in various monthly book stack photos on Twitter, and then my curiosity was piqued. Having now read it, this book blew me away and is sure to find a place in my year end list.
There’s a scene in the final pages of the novel, when Vera, the mother, takes Janet, her eldest daughter and child to a shop to select a dress for the hunt ball. Having turned sixteen, Vera is keen to launch Janet into society, and the hunt ball has been planned for this very purpose. Despite the strained relationship between Vera and Janet, Vera harbours hope, however slim, that this shopping expedition might just turn out to be an occasion for bonding. Vera chooses a beautiful white delicate gown for Janet to try on, but Janet is unhappy. Instead, she selects a loud purple dress that Vera thinks is hideous but which she accepts with resignation, a reminder that the gulf between mother and daughter will forever remain unbridgeable.
Enamoured by purple, her absolutely favourite colour, Janet loves the dress and genuinely believes it to be an expression of her individuality and she does stand out at the party but as a figure of scorn rather than of admiration.
This, then, is the fate to always befall Janet in Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia, a brilliant, immersive, haunting tale of an intelligent often misunderstood young woman who unable to conform to societal expectations seeks solace in books, animals and her wild, vivid imagination.
The book opens with an arresting scene in an isolated Scottish castle. The play of filtered light on the stained-glass window refracts a splash of vibrant colours on the great stone staircase. And at the bottom of the stairs lies Janet clad in her mother’s black evening gown “twisted and slumped in bloody, murderous death.” Regarded as a difficult, troublesome girl by her family, she is soon forgotten, but the only living creature who pines for her is Claws, Janet’s beloved jackdaw who mournfully roams around her room searching for her in vain only to finally die (“At last, in desolation, like a tiny kamikaze pilot, he flew straight into the massive walls of Auchnasaugh and killed himself”).
The rest of the book then is a flashback that spans sixteen years as the reader is given an account of Janet’s short, turbulent life and the events leading to her death.
Janet is the first child born to Hector and Vera in wartime on a “fog-bound winter night in Edinburgh.” Once Hector is called away to the front, Vera moves with Janet to an Edwardian mansion by the sea owned by Hector’s parents. From an early age, Janet displays a lively imagination, an aptitude for books and learning and a special bond that she shares with her grandparents, especially the grandmother. But as the family keeps expanding, Janet is quickly sidelined and her fiery, rebellious nature increasingly makes her feel like an outsider within her own family. In subsequent years, Francis is born, and then Rhona to be followed by Lulu and Caro and Janet becomes contemptuous of her siblings failing to attain any kinship with them.
The fact that Janet is sometimes an awkward girl, clumsy with the tasks thrust upon her often instigates the ire of her mother and Nanny, a strict, God-fearing nurse employed to look after the children. Surrounded by a family that fails to understand her because she refuses to bend to its set, conformist ways, Janet turns inward, seeking refuge in her books and her thoughts, and developing a keen love for animals. The feeling of isolation only heightens, when her grandmother, the only family member she was very close to suddenly dies.
But then the war is over, and the family subsequently moves to a solitary Scottish castle called Auchnasaugh, a property left to Hector by his uncle on the condition that his cousin Lila is allowed to stay on there. Hector has no problem with the arrangement, but Vera is livid though helpless to do anything about it.
Auchnasaugh, the field of sighing, took its name from the winds which lamented around it almost all the year, sometimes moaning softly, filtered through swathes of pine groves, more often malign, shrieking over the battlements and booming down the chimneys, so that the furnace which fed the ancient central heating system roared up and the pipes shuddered and the Aga top glowed infernal red. Then the jackdaws would explode in a dense cloud from their hiding places on the roof and float on the high wild air crying warning and woe to the winter world. ‘A gaunt place,’ said the village people, and they seldom passed that way.
Vera detests Auchnasaugh, but Janet loves it passionately. The remoteness and solitary quality of the castle reflects Janet’s state of being, the sense of aloneness she experiences even amongst people.
Indeed, for her Auchnasaugh was a place of delight and absolute beauty, all her soul had ever yearned for, so although she could understand that many a spirit might wish to return to it, and she hoped that in time she too might do so, she felt the circumstances and mood of such visitations could only be joyous. She had no fear of its lofty shadowed rooms, its dim stone passages, its turrets and towers and dank subterranean chambers, dripping with verdigris and haven to rats. So running now down the narrow twisting road through the forest, she looked forward to the moment when it dropped to the dark, secret glen, where the great hills rose steeply on each side and halfway up one of them, hidden by its trees, stood the castle.
She is most comfortable in the company of her eccentric cousin Lila – a despondent, lonely whisky-swigging woman accused of being responsible for her Russian husband’s death and branded as an outcast. Lila’s narrow world is defined by her filthy room (a den of discarded food and assorted bric-a-brac among other things), heavy drinking and a passion for growing mushrooms and other forms of fungi, and her raggedy cat Mouflon. For the most part, Lila stays out of the family’s way, but an occasional presence only fuels Vera’s anger further.
About the room were many other desiccated trophies bracket fungi like Neanderthal livers, long-dead roses in jam-jars green with algae, bracken and rowan berries hung in shrivelled swags round the mirror frames, straw hats pinned to the walls, dust lying heavy on the brims, turning their wreathed flowers a uniform grey. The crumpled rugs s bore a patina of cigarette ash, the ashtrays brimmed, books lay open on the floor and tables, stained with coffee, dog-eared and annotated. These books were in Russian, for Lila, like the Heraclea, originated there.
If Janet had her way, she would have happily continued to stay on in Auchnasaugh, but that is not to be. She is sent to a boarding school, St Uncumba’s, for further studies where her sense of isolation only deepens (“But nothing could assuage the cold, familiar dereliction of night in the dormitory, with the sea below the cliff and the sea wind whipping the sleet against the windows”). Despite what she perceives as a claustrophobic, two-dimensional world, Janet finds within her a way to survive, but she is forced to admit much to her dismay that even to be accepted by her classmates is to pander to their expectations. She cannot flower or let her own personality develop because that would make her an object of ridicule. For instance, Janet abhors sports, but those showing a prowess in games are lauded, while on the rare occasion when Janet displays her keen intelligence, she is immediately made to pay for being a show-off.
Janet began to hate the sea. There was so much of it, flowing, counter-flowing, entering other seas, slyly furthering its interests beyond the mind’s reckoning; no wonder it could pass itself off as sky; it was voracious marine confederacy. She saw how it diminished people as they walked along the shore; they lost their identity, were no more than pebbles, part of the sea’s scheme. Once there had been a great forest below the cliffs; there the hairy mammoth had browsed and raised his trunk and trumpeted. There had been mountain crags and deep, sweet valleys of gentle herbivores. The sea had come and taken them.
In Janet, Elspeth Barker has created a wonderful, brilliant character – nonconformist, dreamy and a misfit within the conventional boundaries of society. She is a doomed young girl but her fierce determination to remain true to herself and staunch refusal to be molded as per the dictates of others makes her utterly remarkable. A deep love for reading, an alternate world conjured up by her imagination and an intense fascination with the natural world propels her forward when all else around her seems bleak. She is drawn towards Lila, because she is subconsciously aware of how similar they are, how they are shunned by so-called “normal” people. And yet, as she grows older so does the raging conflict within her – although she hates people and the idea of being sociable, there’s a part of her that desires to be accepted and included, but on her terms and not theirs.
Loneliness, a troubled mother-daughter relationship, sibling rivalries, the feeling of being an outcast within your own family and a misfit in society, a lone woman’s struggle for acceptance, the yearning to live life on your own terms are some of the major themes featured in O Caledonia articulated in a style that is so original and striking.
The biggest highlight of O Caledonia though is Barker’s stunning writing. It’s truly a feast for the senses dotted with rich, kaleidoscopic imagery, lush language, dazzling manner of expression, and haunting dreamlike vibes. For instance, there’s Nanny bearing down “with a face like the North Sea.” A purple silk flower has “petals lapped in all shades of mauve, violet, heliotrope.” At the beach, the children run on “the mirror-bright sand filmed in water”, and the beach itself “spread in a great curve, fringed by mournful dunes.” There’s the giant hogweed grove at Auchnasaugh, whose great heads of flowers “swayed in menace against the windy sky and its serpentine stems reared triumphant and rutilant.” During a particularly exquisite summer Janet watches the “silent golden day bring glory to the sombre pines.” And then the view from Janet’s dormitory window “where the grey sea imperceptibly merged into the grey sky” that was like “living at the end of the world.” Here’s another example…
Fuller’s was the good thing about trips to the dentist. With faces frozen by the sleety wind and the jaw-scrunching needle they would step from the you granite street and the granite sky into a warm lamp-lit haven. The carpets were pink and dense so that moved soundlessly; there were no windows; you could forget the outer world. Teaspoons clinked on porcelain saucers, tiered stands shone, laden with the snowy glory of Fuller’s walnut cake. Reverently the waitress raised the silver dome from a fragrant mound of buttered toast, flaccid and dribbling with amber rivulets.
Deeply atmospheric with a trancelike quality, O Caledonia is steeped in gothic overtones – a draughty, solitary castle perched atop a hill in the wilds of Scotland; the vast, immense, unyielding sea that heightens Janet’s loneliness; lonely moors; wintertime accentuated by shrieking owls, leafless beeches and a hush, stark landscape. A gorgeous evocative mood piece, O Caledonia pulsates with elements that are reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and even Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour.
O Caledonia, then, is a poetic and beautiful novel, an ode to individuality, nature and literature with an unforgettable heroine at its heart. Highly, highly recommended!
Sara Stridsberg first came to my attention when her earlier book The Faculty of Dreams was shortlisted for the 2019 International Booker Prize. I’ve yet to read that one, but on the strength of The Antarctica of Love, she is definitely a writer to watch out.
The Antarctica of Love is a brutal but beautiful tale of chronic drug abuse, fragile familial relationships, isolation, death and loss.
The first thing that strikes you about the novel is the unique and distinct voice – Inni is our narrator but she is speaking to the reader from beyond the grave, after she has been violently murdered.
The book begins with Inni’s gruesome murder in a stark, bleak area, on the outskirts of civilization, close to a lake, the water as smooth as a sheet of metal. It’s a remote place with not a soul in sight. A slurry pit like a quivering marshland lends the area an eerie, ominous air (“When the engine stopped we sat in silence, surveying the lake’s silvery sheen; a solitary black bird, soaring and dipping over the inky surface, the world’s last bird”). This is the spot where the unnamed murdered has captured and brought Inni, the final hours before her imminent death.
It was the blue hour, the hour when the sun and the moon met and the first tremulous night-time light and vestiges of daylight merged like magical waters and swathed the world in a quivering violet phosphorescence, when everything grew soft and nebulous and all the outlines and shadows melted away.
Inni is not scared though. She is resigned to her fate and possibly even welcomes the prospect of her life being extinguished. A chronic drug addict, she has reached the end of her tether with nowhere to go and no one she can turn to. Death seems like a release.
The murderer does not waste time. He strangles Inni, and cuts her body into pieces. The head is thrown into the slurry pit where it steadily sinks (“mine disappears into the slurry pit with the pink surface, sinking slowly to the bottom; and as it descends, my hair opens out like a little parachute over my head“). The rest of the body is dumped in two white suitcases and left close to the road where they will be eventually discovered.
Perhaps the reason I was already at the end, too soon, far too soon, on this muddy road at the edge of an unknown forest, was because I had no words for who I was and what I had come from. Inside me was voiceless silence, above me only a bare, defenceless sky and beneath ne the earth’s unrelenting gravity, pulling me down.
In The Antarctica of Love, then, Inni is sort of an omniscient narrator because we follow her story or certain critical portions of it right from her childhood to her afterlife. The narrative arc swings back and forth between three time periods – Inni’s troubled past with her family; the present which records the hours before her death when she is captured by the murderer; and the future, or to be more precise, the days and years after Inni’s death, where we are shown snapshots of how her family is getting on without her.
The story of Inni’s life is a tale soaked in sadness, a life filled with trauma and tragedy that leaves her vulnerable and shaken, sowing the seeds of chronic drug abuse. Just minutes before her death, when fragments of her past flash before her, the readers are also given a window into her world. At first, we are thrown headlong into a recitation of names the details of which remain hazy. We hear of Raksha and Ivan. We learn of Eskil, drowned many years ago. Shane is mentioned as is Valle and Solveig. These names are meaningless at the beginning, a clearer picture emerges as the tale unfolds, but we immediately get a sense that these are people integral to Inni in the way they shaped up her short life. In other words these are her closest family members whose destinies are very much entwined with hers.
Inni’s parents are Raksha and Ivan, a couple bound in a mercurial relationship. Inni adores Raksha, but her mother’s world is dominated by her passion for Ivan and for drugs. An early tragedy pushes Inni to the edge, a traumatic event that pretty much lays the foundation for how the rest of her life pans out. She and her younger brother Eskil are playing by the river; Raksha and Ivan are somewhere nearby. At a crucial moment, when the three are not looking, Eskil drowns. Attempts to revive him in the hospital are in vain, and Eskil is declared dead.
Everyone weeps apart from me, but something inside me has frozen. It isn’t just the tears, it is something else. A disillusionment so deep, so penetrating, the freezing point of blood, the ultimate Antarctica of love.
Eskil’s death not only affects Raksha and Inni badly, it increases the gulf between them. Inni still craves for Raksha’s love but Raksha remains distant and remote as ever. It’s also around that time that Inni develops an addiction for heroin; the heady rush of the drug coursing through her blood becomes a vehicle to escape a pitiless reality and get lost in a dream world. That steady descent into drugs will blemish her life forever – Inni does experience the joys of falling in love and of motherhood, but those new bonds are fragile; with her inability to remain clean, she is treading on eggshells, paving the way for more tragedy.
The Antarctica of Love, then, is an evocative, unflinching tale of a woman driven to the edge of an abyss from which there is no hope of redemption (“I had sunk deeper into the mire and slime that existed beneath the city, below the earth and asphalt where the filth gathered, in the underground sewers and metro bunkers where people lived like ghosts”).
What’s remarkable about the novel is Inni’s vulnerability – It would be easy to dismiss her as a woman who deserved what was coming to her because of the bad choices she made, but the emotional depth and beauty of Stridsberg’s writing refuses to let the reader judge her so harshly. There are moments when some sections seem repetitive and one wonders whether this is deliberate, given that we are inside the mind of a damaged woman who is plumbing the depths of her memories in recounting her tale…indeed, there’s a part somewhere in the middle of the book where Inni tells us something she’s already told us before and immediately follows up with the line – “but I already told you that, didn’t I?”
One of the themes explored in The Antarctica of Love is the debilitating consequences of parental neglect. Raksha is a self-absorbed mother, with Inni and Eskil for the most part left to their own devices. Inni yearns for her mother’s love, to be the centre of her world…Indeed, even minutes before death, despite Inni having accepted her fate, we witness brief moments of resistance with Inni calling out for Raksha. But the bitter reality of being denied her mother’s care manifests itself deep into Inni’s psyche with the result that this legacy of neglect is something that Inni passes on to her children as well.
It is strange that I fantasise so much about Solveig. I don’t know her and I never have. All I have is those two hours on the maternity ward when she was a tiny bundle of warmth in my arms. But it is easier to think about her than to think about Valle, because I never did her any harm. I kept her safe by making sure she would never need to be with me. For Solveig I did the only thing I could have done, even if Shane could never forgive me for it.
The novel is also a heartrending meditation on fragile familial bonds, loss, death and the momentous effort of pushing forward. The latter is particularly exemplified in how Inni’s parents and her children (her son Valle and her daughter Solveig) try to patch together the tattered fragments of their lives and attempt to move on, however, imperfect or arduous the journey. After years of separation, we see Ivan and Raksha reunite in their grief, and Raksha after having adapted to an independent existence, faces the prospect of being dependent on a man again. We also see the children Solveig and Valle, the latter in particular, try to adapt to their respective foster homes, and build a new life for themselves as they grow into adults.
Death is a potent force in the book, always lurking in the corner – Eskil’s death is the starting point of Inni’s lifelong downward spiral culminating in her own death at the hands of a random man. It’s also a tale seeped in loss and isolation – with death taking away her two children, Raksha is now utterly alone in her old age, while Inni’s unfathomable dependence on drugs isolates her from the world even further. Unable to drastically alter her circumstances, she also experiences the anguish of losing her children, but she harbours hope that they will go on to lead better lives with her not around.
Familial bonds are as frail as bone china, ready to crack at the slightest signal of danger. Raksha and Ivan’s passionate, volatile relationship threatens to engulf them…Inni and Shane love each other deeply but as addicts theirs is a relationship always in peril, of not being able to withstand the pressures that life throws at them.
At its core, The Antarctica of Love is a pretty disturbing book given its dark subject matter, but what elevates it to the next level is the richness of the writing. The prose is simply gorgeous and haunting, suffused with tenderness, compassion and beauty, with that aching melancholic feel to it but also punctuated with glimmers of hope.
The book is lush with a strong sense of place, stark, surreal and even dystopian at times; whether it’s the desolate lake area where Inni meets her end (“The world seemed to be heavy with rain, a world of rain in which the green appeared in sharper focus, a world immersed in water”), or the murky underbelly of a metropolis like Stockholm.
It is an archaic landscape swept by cold, harsh winds; it looks modern but it is ancient. A cluster of islands surrounded by motionless seawater beneath a naked sky. A patchwork of faded facades in yellow and pink with modern buildings made of black steel and glass. Bank headquarters, shopping malls and multi-storey car parks have a futuristic look, but age-old thoughts fill people’s minds, ponderous, inalterable; there are victims, there are perpetrators, there are witnesses, and they all peer down at the ground. The well-heeled live in the centre, as they always have. And the lifeblood of this city circulates around Herkulesgatan and from there to the banks, the money moves in and out of the state, and the architecture framing all of this is raw and cold. Some are doomed to failure, others destined to advance, a certain few will rise above the rest; and you can see the early signs, children defined from the start.
As a victim of parental neglect, trauma, debilitating drug abuse, and eventually murder, Inni’s fate mirrors that of people who live on the margins and sink without a trace; lives that hardly cause a ripple on the surface of the broader world. But Inni does not face that ignominy, through the sheer poetry of Stridsberg’s writing, her life becomes alive and vivid…she transforms into an unforgettable narrator whose heartbreaking, poignant tale will leave a deep impression on our minds.
I had never read Tessa Hadley before and was all set to begin with her earlier novel The Past widely considered to be the best entry point into her work. But the best laid plans often go awry, and her newest novel Free Love is what I wanted to read first simply because I was fascinated by its premise. Anyway, long story short, I loved this novel.
Set in the 1960s, Free Love is a beautifully constructed novel, a sensual exploration of love, passion, liberation, sexual awakening, and new beginnings.
The book’s protagonist, Phyllis Fischer, is a 40-year old stylish woman, comfortably married and settled. Her husband Roger has a plush job in the Foreign Service and the couple has two children – Colette (the elder one), and Hugh.
When the book opens, the Fischers are all set to welcome their guest who they have invited home for dinner. The person they are expecting is a young man they have never met before – his name is Nicky Knight and he is the son of Roger’s close friends. The Fischers have a well-appointed, cozy home, artistically decorated by Phyllis who has a flair for these things and is now well ensconced in her suburban life. In contrast to Phyllis’ flighty, flirty personality, Roger is more stable and well-grounded, but the couple seems to get along fairly well. They do have their disagreements though. One point of contention revolves around their son’s education. Roger believes that a stint in a boarding school will go a long way in shaping up Hugh’s character and career, while Phyllis sees no reason why his current life must be disrupted.
Phyllis is close to her son, but shares a volatile bond with Colette, her awkward but intelligent teenaged daughter. In terms of physique, Colette is ungainly but what she lacks in looks, she more than makes up for in intelligence.
Her father’s intelligence was so much stronger than her mother’s, Colette thought; yet it was the slippery labyrinth of her mother’s mind – illogical, working through self-suggestion and hunches according to her hidden purposes – which was closed to Colette, and therefore more dangerous for her.
And then there is Nicky, who has not turned up at the Fischer residence yet. Nicky does not look forward to the evening at all; he has merely accepted the dinner invitation on his mother’s insistence. He finally announces his presence at the Fischer home, terribly late, just when the family has already started dinner without him. Nicky, with his revolutionary bent and left leaning outlook, is contemptuous of the world in which the Fischers move, their bourgeoisie living and staid, conservative ideas. Dinner is a fraught affair with Nicky openly airing his radical views, and while Colette remains sullen throughout the meal, Roger is keenly interested in what Nicky has to say. Phyllis is her old, flirty self but suddenly becomes self-conscious when Nicky inadvertently makes her feel her age.
It’s only when the party embarks on a bizarre expedition to retrieve a neighbour’s son’s slipper from the pond that things take a quick and unexpected turn. Nicky and Phyllis kiss passionately setting in motion a chain of events that will throw the Fischer family life upside down.
What had been unthinkable yesterday, now felt inevitable and necessary: she saw that she was capable of being two contradictory things at once, wife and lover. The two sides existed as separate sealed chambers, both were necessary to her, only she had the key to both – how could that harm anyone?
Phyllis and Nicky, enamoured with each other, become immersed in a passionate affair, despite the significant age gap. For Nicky, with a trail of desultory, half-hearted relationships behind him, sex with an experienced woman like Phyllis is a revelation. For Phyllis, whose sex life with Roger borders on the awkward, the affair with Nicky is bracing and gives her a sense of liberation.
His lascivious uninhibited gaze was as arousing, almost, as if he touched her. She had never been seen like this before, or allowed herself to be seen, without any ironic deflection: not with Roger, nor that other man. Getting his pleasure, Nicky was so heedless and unconstrained – so that she, too, was unconstrained, and didn’t care how he saw her. Married love was too kind, she thought, it hovered on the threshold of this knowledge and never went inside, never took the necessary liberties.
But what is the price that Phyllis will pay for this newfound sliver of freedom?
Free Love, then, dwells on the themes of reinvention, the thrill of new experiences, new beginnings, rediscovering oneself, defying conventions, and a woman’s choice to carve out an identity for herself separate from family.
Phyllis becomes increasingly drawn to Nicky’s bohemian world which is a stark contrast to her dull, orderly existence where beauty and polite conversations take precedence over ideas and new ways of thinking.
As the novel progresses, Phyllis’ relations with her family, unsurprisingly, undergo a sea of change; with the children, particularly, it reverses. Her son, the apple of her eye, disapproving of the path Phyllis has chosen, becomes increasingly estranged from her. Colette, visibly shaken by the breakdown of her family, feels unmoored and adrift, and yet slowly begins to bond with her mother. Roger is angry with Phyllis for throwing him into an embarrassing situation, and puts on an impenetrable exterior that only alienates his children. Struck by the difficulty in communicating his feelings, he struggles to cope, but then finds solace in an unexpected quarter.
Based on the premise alone, Free Love could easily have been a run-of-the-mill kind of a novel, but it is not…it’s quite the opposite. The maturity and elegance of Hadley’s writing lends the book a special quality, and there’s something deliciously luxurious about her prose that makes it a pleasure to read, the sort of book that you can just sink into.
The characters are well-developed, fully realized…they are flawed and deeply humane as they struggle to navigate an uncertain future fuelled by the disintegration of their old world. Various facets of their personalities – desires, fears, hopes, secrets – are so sensitively presented, but Hadley never judges them. The point is not to dwell on their faults, as much as it is to delicately depict the differing perceptions of each of her characters as they grapple with a common dilemma. Hadley’s warmth, wisdom and understanding are on full display here as she beautifully renders the turmoil raging in her characters’ inner and outer lives.
In a nutshell, Free Love, is a profound meditation on the importance of a meaningful existence, and how that definition can mean different things to different people. Highly recommended.