Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2015:2
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
It is natural as time passes to re-evaluate our relationship with our late parents and eminent novelist and playwright Agneta Pleijel (b. 1940) has reached that stage, producing in the process a melancholy, in places angry, exploration of her own younger days. Is this a work of fact, fiction or a blend of both? ‘We create ourselves out of words,’ writes the narrator ‘Neta’. It is impossible for anyone to be entirely honest.
The memoir takes its title and structure from a fortune-teller’s prophesy for Aunt Ricki, Neta’s father’s racier younger sister who trained as an architect and married a Swedish lingerie salesman she met on holiday in Madeira. The prophesy claimed Ricki would meet a dark man, have two sons and die beside flowing waters, and some of those predictions do indeed come true.
Neta and her younger sisters have a disjointed early childhood, the family moving from place to place as their father, a mathematics professor, takes up new university posts in California, Stockholm, and finally Lund. Each time she manages to make friends she is obliged to start again. Her mother, of Dutch-Indonesian descent, is a pianist thwarted in her hopes of a professional career who chafes at the quotidian responsibilities of motherhood and domestic life.
Neta is a bookworm, devouring everything from Vilhelm Moberg’s emigrant epic to Wild West stories. Alice Through the Looking Glass makes a great impression, introducing the concept of a distorted but parallel reality. She reads her way round the world: to reach her father’s new job in California the family hires a car and takes Route 66, but she is deep in her books. As they drive across the desert at night to avoid the heat, she loves the idea of the five of them, self- contained and secure in their little car, a memory which resurfaces later as the idea of the pentagram, the five making up a whole.
The memoir is universal in its portrayal of the tumult of adolescence, specific in its rich evocations of a past era, and acutely, physically personal. Like many a teenager, Neta is obsessed with sex, and gleans clues from the family medical book and trashy romance novels before moving on to her own experiments. Her mother seems in denial and offers no support in matters such as menstruation and other physical changes. Pleijel reminds us what a chore it was growing to womanhood at that time, coping with periods at school before the advent of discreet sanitary protection and tactfully trying to negotiate routine sexual harassment.
Looking for role models in life, Neta admires Ricki’s adventurousness, but her aunt is too far away, too wrapped up in love and motherhood and later, too ill. Neta’s mother believes in the power of music and despairs of her eldest daughter’s lack of musical talent. Her father believes in particles and the simple beauty of formulae. Neta wants to believe in God, but finds only hollow rituals when she insists on attending confirmation classes. Her father’s approach to life – even to the protracted adulterous affair that slowly and excruciatingly destroys the marriage – is a calm, rational shrug. Neta loves him deeply but believes him to suffer from terminal indecision. She loves but fears her emotional, self-pitying mother, always prone to shift the blame onto her. Neta is guilt-ridden, paralysed by their expectations and convinced that whatever she does, she will disappoint one or the other, or both.She feels like the galvanised frog in her science teacher’s experiments. The process of separation from her parents is a long, agonising one, finally embraced in a closing scene. The author approaches the dissection of her early years by shifting between third and first-person narration. Neta is initially referred to as ‘she’, with very occasional interjections by an assessing ‘I’. As the book progresses there are more frequent first-person passages and on the final pages, Pleijel fuses the two: ‘She is me. That is to say, I was once her.’
The book has won widespread critical praise in Sweden. For Philip Teir, reviewing in Dagens Nyheter, the memoir invites comparisons with the autobiographies of P.O. Enquist. He writes: ‘Like many children of the fifties, Agneta Pleijel decides not to be like her parents. She wants to try to be a writer. How fortunate for us.’ One can only concur, for stylistically this is writing of the highest order.