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Ann Granhammer, Den indianska krassens blickande (The Look of the Nasturtium)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2006. ISBN: 9789100106171

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2007:1

See article and extract in SBR 2007:1 issue

It is early April in the year 1782. A woman named Elisabeth Christina Linné, known since girlhood as Lisa, is taking a walk in the forest to see if the blue anemones are in bloom, when she slips and hurts her leg. She comes to rest in the thick undergrowth of ferns, unable to get up, and it is from this powerless position that she tells her story. She shivers, grows chilled and then feverish, dozes, watches a hare, and eventually begins to hallucinate as she lies there, dehydrated and delirious, fatally out of reach of help yet so ludicrously close to her Hammarby home. She looks back on a life as daughter of the great natural scientist Linnaeus, and her frustration as her scholarly dreams were thwarted. Feeling like a grass bent to her parents’ will, a flower unwillingly pressed, she is consigned to a traditional female role while her scientifically indifferent brother monopolizes their father’s attention and is eventually made a professor, though he lacks all the qualifications. Lisa squirms to escape her domestic and marital fate, but her father’s conformity to his society’s expectations of women is as rigid as his taxonomy of the natural world; he actively discourages her scientific curiosity and ambition, albeit with a hint of remorse. Why is Father so bold in some areas of life, so cowardly in others, wonders Lisa. She could go to Court to become curator of the Queen’s collections, catalogued by her father. Or she could investigate the strange flashing light emanating from the nasturtiums in the garden: it could be an electrical phenomenon that might be harnessed for the good of mankind. In emotional matters she has no choice, either. Her first love Anders is sent away to sea, never to return. Her next, Lind, is one of her father’s “apostles”; their snatched intimacy ends abruptly as he is dispatched to collect specimens in faraway lands. She has to resign herself to marrying the Lieutenant, a good match her parents say, but so old; she discovers later that Linnaeus has “sold” her to the man’s family to settle his debts. And while her father can well understand Lisa's studious ambitions, he feels unable to challenge his wife’s seemingly implacable determination to see their eldest daughter married. Once she is a wife, and separated by many miles from her family, Lisa throws herself into domestic duties; she continues her observations and writing, but burns her papers for fear of discovery. She plants nasturtiums in her garden every year, but they never shine and wink in the night. Still irrationally longing for the return of Lind, she desperately aborts the first baby she is expecting: a son, whom she calls Angel, and can never forget. Her second baby is a daughter, Sara, who lives and thrives.The girl is soon all that she and her husband have in common; he goes with younger women and infects her with venereal disease. When he begins physically abusing her, she takes Sara and flees back to Hammarby, to a quiet life of housekeeping and gardening, reflections and dreams. Up in the forest, Lisa is at last found by Sara and carried home. Her daughter and old mother nurse her for two weeks, but she slips away from life, a victim of convention and circumstance, just forty years old. Linnaeus’s sexual system of plant classification, other sources tell us, was termed “loathsome harlotry” by his contemporary Johann Siegesbeck and condemned as an affront to female modesty by the Bishop of Carlisle. The Linnean system effectively excluded girls from formally studying botany for many years. Lisa’s wasted potential in Ann Granhammer’s novel can be read as a metaphor for the fate of a whole generation of young women. Perhaps the book should be made available in schools as an integral part of the tercentenary year’s “Schools Project Linnaeus”, which aims to inspire schools to take an interest in the Swedish naturalist’s legacy. Granhammer has written books for younger readers and this novel, too, though not aimed at that age group, is written in (deceptively) simple style, with short sentences and short chapters. It is a haunting, poetic little novel in which all but the central players are stylized and somehow distant; the narrative is low-key, but powerful emotions are still conveyed. The pared-down, burnished prose seems to heighten both the beauty and complexity of nature and the sadness of the central character.

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