Reviewed by Darcy Hurford in SBR 2013:1
Review Section: Fiction
At the book fair in Gothenburg last autumn, Mikael Niemi and the Norwegian writer Erlend Loe discussed their love of Finnish wit and, in particular, the Arto Paasilinna variety, which focuses on the tragi-comic spectacle of middle-aged, unintellectual men in crisis. A similar mixture of humour and tragedy characterises Popular Music, the novel that made Niemi famous, and recurs in his Fallvatten, a disaster novel that describes a northern river bursting its banks and dams, and the impact of the floodwaters on the lives of individuals.
We encounter Vincent Laurin, a disillusioned middle-aged man, who plans to kill himself by crashing the helicopter he uses for his tourist business. His wife has left him for another man, and threatens to seize his assets. To Laurin’s surprise, the floodwaters turn the helicopter into a life-saving asset, which also gives him and the reader a bird’s-eye view of the catastrophe as it unfolds.
The idea of a Swedish disaster story is interesting in itself. The Hollywood output of scare stories is mind-numbing, but something about setting this story in rural Sweden makes it more unsettling than the most imaginative zombie invasion; we expect the Swedish countryside to be safe and uneventful. Excessive rain has swelled the river, and the flooding catches people in the course of their everyday business, visiting parents, working, attending an art class. Some of them seem likeable, some of them fascinate – only in many cases to be washed away a few pages later. Their behaviour is sometimes unsettling as well. There are scenes in this novel which are far from easy reading and stick in the mind long afterwards.
The flooding claims many lives, but Niemi is capable of adding some humour even at the most nail-biting moments. Lovisa, Vincent’s daughter, pregnant and trapped in a floating wooden house, sees a bookcase ‘…filled with summer-time reading. Furthest down, she saw that Popular Music was drowning in the water, about to be washed away’.
There is also a strong sense of place. Norrbotten does not feature frequently in fiction and when it does, it is often in exotic terms: reindeer, the Arctic Circle, Sami in folk costumes. Sami characters in Fallvatten are presented matter-of-factly: the description of how Lovisa Laurin meets her partner at a Sami dance, for example, offers an insight into a culture not always visible in Swedish novels.
The one scene which takes place outside Norrbotten is a fine example of comic exaggeration, as well as a pointed comment about the attitudes of more southerly Swedes towards the northern part of the country. The only effect felt in Stockholm of the dams bursting is an instant’s power cut. We observe this through the character of Carsten Azon (‘Azon looked better than Anderson, a bit Spanish’), drinking a latte, taking photos of himself with his camera phone, and pondering whether to start wearing a monocle. The contrast to the people in Norrbotten described on the previous 200-odd pages could not be clearer.