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Majgull Axelsson, Den jag aldrig var (The Woman I Never Was)

Prisma,  2004. ISBN: 9151843161

Reviewed by Linda Schenck in SBR 2005:1

On 22 September 2004, Lisbeth Larsson reviewed The Woman I Never Was in Dagens Nyheter. The opening of her review captures the essence of the novel: “‘They were white underpants, of very fine quality.’ This is the concise and powerful first sentence of Majgull Axelsson’s new novel, The Woman I Never Was. And it resonates throughout the story. No matter how dirty those underpants are they somehow miraculously remain bright white. It is difficult to pinpoint precisely how she does it, but somehow Majgull Axelsson manages to describe by implication a ‘dirty laundry society’. And even when a man in a position of power falls from a window and breaks his neck in an Eastern European city after having purchased, for a pathetically small sum, the services of a malnourished and impoverished under-age prostitute, he still has them on, those ‘white under-pants, of very fine quality’.” The protagonist is a woman in her forties. As a child in post-war Sweden, her German-Jewish immigrant mother called her Mary and her Swedish father called her Marie. The home was quite dysfunctional, and its main feature was silence. Towards the end of her upper second-ary schooling (in the seventies) Mary-Marie was the winner in her province of a national essay competition. The prize was a trip to Stockholm to spend a week at the Parliament. The six other provincial prizewinners were oddball teenagers, like her, and for the first time they found themselves among kindred spirits. Before the weekend was out they had formed “The Billiards Club of the Future” (interested in anything and everything but billiards), and from that time on they spent every Midsummer and New Year’s Eve together, no matter where otherwise living and working. Couples also formed. MaryMarie (as her friends came to call her, in an effort to help her integrate her confused identity) eventually married Sverker (they are the focus of the novel), although she might have been better off with Torsten. Anna and Per also became a couple, and Magnus married Sverker’s sister, Maud. Sisslea (who remained single) and MaryMarie became and remained very close friends. MaryMarie has a comet-like career first in journalism and then in the government, and when the novel opens she is Minister for Development Aid (or is she?). Sverker is an advertising executive, but above all the classic dishonest, unfaithful husband who cannot keep his trousers on. On a business trip to a fictitious Eastern European country Sverker picks up a young prostitute, and the next morning he is found lying in the street with a broken neck, having presumably been pushed or fallen out the window of a derelict building. The novel opens seven years after that “accident”, and everything from the past is recounted in flashbacks. Sverker is wheelchair-bound (or is he dead?), and the reader follows Mary and Marie separately and alternately. This is not the splitting of a personality. Mary and Marie are the same person but follow different courses of events. Mary is the woman who remains stoically married to an invalid and pursues her career, from editor-in-chief of a tabloid to social democratic Minister for Develop-ment Aid. Marie is the woman who kills her husband, not as a form of assisted suicide but as an act of revenge and liber-ation. In October 2004 she has served a six-year prison sentence and is taking her first tentative steps back into society. The technique works perfectly, and reminds the reader of the fascination, for example, of reading John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The question “What might have become of me if ...?” is one we all ask ourselves, and this novel explores it in a fascinating way.

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