Norstedts, 2004. ISBN: 9113013319
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2005:1
Inger Edelfeldt has always been deeply interested in what makes people tick. Over the years she has produced a gallery of finely observed first-person portraits in her novels and short stories. Perhaps it is a logical progression, then, that RoseMarie, the narrator and central character of Black Box, is a psychologist. RoseMarie has just passed fifty and lives and works in modern-day Stockholm as a Gestalt therapist. But as the novel opens, she has been off work for almost three years, paralysed by shock and grief after the sudden, premature death of her beloved partner Yannis, a photographer of Greek parentage. The novel is her account of her life before Yannis, her few happy years with him, and her long, slow struggle to adjust to life without him. It is a moving portrayal of the pain, numb-ness and self-blame of unexpected bereavement; the emotional vulnerability; the impossibility of fulfilling society’s expectation that grief will be tastefully suppressed after a suitable period. In RoseMarie’s case, as a trained therapist, she also continuously analyses her own reactions and emotions. The novel is made up of a tapestry of different texts: RoseMarie’s first-person narrative framework; her own diary entries from the time Yannis died; snippets of personal jottings, stored in a black box, in which she pours out child-hood reminiscences and her innermost thoughts and dreams; and extracts from a book she is writing intermittently, a self-help manual of popular psychology. Her recovery from her worst despair is mirrored in her attitude to all this written material. At times she is sickened by the self-pitying mass of it, but by the end she starts to relish the idea of pum-melling it into shape for publication. The RoseMarie we initially encounter is in an embittered state of denial and lack of self-esteem. She hates her emotionally manipulative mother, her contemptuous father (long dead), her disapproving sister, and everyone who ever exper-ienced anything with Yannis of which she wasn’t part. Thus she resents his Greek family for knowing him in his boyhood, for their closeness, their “Greekness”, their un-Swedish lack of emotional inhibition – though in the end it is a visit to Yannis’s village in Greece that helps her unfreeze. More significant still for her return to life is a chance meeting with a teenage girl calling herself Ninja, who is sitting crying at an underground station. Drawn to a grief seemingly as palpable as her own, RoseMarie strikes up a convers-ation with the girl and they make tent-ative contact that gradually develops into regular if wary companionship. Ninja is rebelling, albeit in a rather low-key, middle-class way, against her wellheeled and conventional parents. This adolescent nonconformity reminds RoseMarie of her own youthful “anti-everything” stance. Inger Edelfeldt has come to excel in depicting young people’s emotional trauma, and here she has a double opportunity: through RoseMarie’s sharp eye for Ninja’s troubles and simultan-eously through RoseMarie’s vivid mem-ories of her own unhappy adolescence. The pair go for walks and to the cinema, and even join the mass anti-war demonstration as the USA and Britain prepare to invade Iraq. They prove to be good for each other. RoseMarie may regret letting this impulsive, unpredict-able element intrude into her grief, but she comes to value Ninja’s company and finds she is noticing the world around her again, although Yannis is still ever present in her thoughts. In something of a new departure for Edelfeldt, topical events are strikingly prominent; Rose-Marie begins to regain her political interest and is strongly critical of the state of contemporary Sweden. Even through the veil of private despair and inertia, she is frustrated by political and social developments at home and abroad; angry on behalf of ordinary Swedes who are disorientated and confused. Can they put their faith in the democratic process any more? Is there any point in going on demonstrations? Why is all their country’s political energy directed to Brussels these days? What can well-meaning, ordinary people do in the face of global capitalism and inhum-anity? They struggle to pay for their prescriptions and dental treatment, feeling powerless and disenfranchised in a society where public services and sense of community spirit are being eroded in favour of so-called individual responsibility. And where, RoseMarie asks, is the space to grieve undisturbed in our frenetic modern lifestyle? The tone of the novel’s language is, one imagines, more personal than that usually offered to us by Edelfeldt the master mimic. There are some wonderfully lyrical moments; it is worth remember-ing that one of her previous sustained accounts of passionate love and the pain of its sudden end was a suite of poems, Salt (1999). There is also a great deal of self-deprecating and witty humour from the main character, as indeed was the case with the rather more whimsically portrayed figure of Helena in Edelfeldt’s last novel Det hemliga namnet (The Secret Name, 1999). Black Box had mixed reviews: some critics were disconcerted while others applauded Edelfeldt’s continued flouting of publishing fashion by her choice of another unglamorous, inadequate, contra-dictory, middle-aged female protagonist, and her tackling of difficult subjects like depression, death and bereavement. Some – unjustifiably in my view – complained of a lack of outward action, but Kristoffer Leandoer (New Swedish Titles, Swedish Institute 2004) praised Edelfeldt for her boldness in writing a novel consisting exclusively of psych-ology: “In our spectaclehungry society, this is the ultimate taboo.” Not a light read, but one full of unexpected per-spectives on human nature and society, and perfectly capturing the angst of today’s Sweden. Its description of how it feels abruptly to lose a loved one away enjoying a holiday has unwittingly achieved shocking topicality following the natural disaster in south-east Asia which claimed the lives of so many Swedish tourists.