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Johanna Ekström, Avskedsstafetten (The Last Leg of the Relay Race)

Wahlström & Widstrand,  2004. ISBN: 9146210792

Reviewed by Silvester Mazzarella in SBR 2006:1

Avskedsstafetten is the first novel by the poet, short story writer and visual artist Johanna Ekström, The novel is mainly set in Notting Hill, where the Swedish heroine, Hanna, has come for a long stay in the flat of a woman friend. She hopes to recuperate after the break-up of her marriage in Sweden. At a book launch in a wine bar she meets André, an attractive young Frenchman with a part-English background. Hanna falls in love with him and they start an affair, her passion increasingly fuelled by André’s mysterious elusiveness. Hanna finds this situation doesn’t exactly help her find the new emotional equilibrium she had hoped for. Meanwhile, flash-backs recall events from her childhood and marriage in Sweden, and her pursuit of André leads her briefly to Paris. A main theme of the novel is the individual’s search for identity, and in particular the question of whether a change of language may alter our perception of ourselves. Hanna is of course involved with Swedish, English and French. Ekström is influenced here by her reading of Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation. This painful tale of self-discovery is rich in imagery, very much a poet’s novel. As a man, I found Hanna’s obsession with the tiresome André intensely irritating; perhaps a woman would be more understanding. Eventually (surprise, surprise) we discover that the apparently brutally insensitive André has been nursing wounds suffered when he was recently abandoned by another woman. A short excerpt from the middle of the book may give an idea of its complex and often expressive if rather precious prose. When André recalls their first meeting, Hanna asks “When was the first time you wanted to kiss me?” And he answers: “In the wine bar on Marylebone High Street. I was sitting leaning towards a mirror reading a book. You looked at yourself. And then at me.” This is more than an answer. This is their story, the little that is theirs: what they have together. His words become a little island for them. At the same time she feels fear come creeping. What kind of an island is this? An island about to sink into the sea?

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