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Stina Aronson, Hitom himlen (This side of the sky)

Modernista,  2003. ISBN: 9188748545

Reviewed by Ellen Rees in SBR 2005:1

With the 1946 novel Hitom himlen, Stina Aronson set out to explore new terr-itory in Swedish literature, giving voice to a landscape and a population of Finnishspeaking Swedes in the far north. Aron-son’s literary predilections rather para-doxically encompassed both a Dickensian emotionalism and the formal radicalism of high modernism. In Hitom himlen, her ninth novel, she magically melded the isolated, pietistic pathos of a group of people cut off from modern Sweden with a strikingly modernistic disregard for novelistic conventions of plot, chronology, and structure. In poetic and evocative language, Aronson describes a world largely unknown to most Swedes, in which the overpowering smell of snow, the intricate rituals of paying a neigh-bourly visit, the emotional refuge that farm animals provide, and the catharsis of a four-hour evangelical sermon are portrayed with great clarity and sympathy. At the same time, Aronson’s novel works against the reader’s expectations, allowing characters to appear and disappear from the story and moving back and forth freely in time without explanation. The total effect is one in which the vagaries and fragility of human existence are emphasized. If we think of a conven-tional plot as an artificial human structure superimposed on a vast and unknowable universe, then Aronson’s rejection of such a plot might be interpreted as a kind of aesthetic submission to a greater power on her part. Her characters live in a profoundly limited social environment that she juxtaposes with the boundless open-ness of the northern landscape. Showing them at their devout best and narrow-minded worst, Aronson’s depictions of people – like the decrepit, introverted and pious widow Emma Niskanpää, her tubercular only son “mitt John”, whom she bore so late in life, and the wolfish Mira Vaara, who abruptly abandons her husband and infant son to follow the ski tracks of a travelling lay preacher – rely primarily on their physical experiences of the world around them and their own bodies rather than more traditionally literary intellectualization or dialogue. Aronson’s characters are stoic people who struggle with language and eye each other’s behaviour suspiciously, but who nonetheless experience the pleasure of company, simple food, and always the overpowering beauty and harshness of the landscape that they inhabit. With the greatest respect for the culture she portrayed (which was not her own – Aronson moved to the far north of Sweden because of her husband’s medical career, and she herself was edu-cated, had literary ambitions, and worked as a teacher before her marriage), Aron-son created a text that at times has an ethnographic feel to it, particularly in the intimate details of the domestic sphere and the bodies of her characters, both male and female, child and adult. It has been said that in this, her first novel set in the arctic north, Aronson finally found the true landscape and expression of her lit-erary aesthetic. The fact that this import-ant, hypnotic novel has been republished as part of the modern classics series should be celebrated, and the process of reading it should be savoured.

Other reviews in SBR 2005:1

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