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Kjell Johansson, Sjön utan namn (The Lake Without a Name)

Norstedts,  2003. ISBN: 9789113012353

Reviewed by Kristina Sjögren in SBR 2007:2

Kjell Johansson, born 1941 and living in Stockholm, published his first novel in 1972 and has been working as a full-time writer since, mainly known for his depictions of the working class. Sjön utan namn is his twelfth novel, the second, free-standing part of a novel trilogy about a very poor working class family. In the first novel, Huset vid Flon (The House By the River) it was the young boy Einar who was the narrator; and in Sjön utan namn it is his big sister Eva, now a middle-aged woman, who tells the story.

Eva is strong and intelligent, and unlike her younger brother Einar she chooses to explore and recover their memories instead of refusing and forgetting the pain they carry. She refuses "the temptation of accepting one’s allotted role, and not having to search for the person one is". Eva dares to "step out into the silence" to go looking for what is not spoken of.

After the death of her and Einar’s mother, Eva suddenly decides to leave her home in Stockholm to go and see her cousins in the remote northern countryside, where she and Einar once spent a summer as children. She does not know why, only that this is something she must do. Einar refuses to go with her, claiming not even to remember the summer spent there.

In spite of a stigmatized, poor childhood, Eva and Einar’s mother made sure that they got a university education, and they now belong to the middle classes. Eva works as a college teacher. When Eva unexpectedly arrives at her cousins’ small, neglected house deep in the forest, it is a journey not only through time and space, but also through social class, back to memories when Eva herself was one of the vulnerable, marginalized and friendless. Her memories from the summer she once spent in the forest are inter-twined with the story of her meeting with her cousins as adults in a mixture of violence and pain.

Poverty in this novel is a human condition – practically inescapable. Poverty is the trap in which the "ordinary" people keep a minority locked up in order to make themselves feel good. It is produced through a range of mechanisms described in the novel and enforced upon those allotted the role of the poor. Not only the rich but also the ordinary people, the working class, are severely criticized for their lack of solidarity with the very poor.

Johansson has several techniques to keep us spellbound. Although the frame and setting of the novel are undoubtedly realistic, there are many elements of fantasy woven into it which cleverly enhance the tense excitement we are kept in. This is facilitated by Eva’s background: she has had a few mental breakdowns; we do not completely thrust her as narrator. The phrase "it never happened" repeatedly ends many of the memories and events, and we are never sure what to believe. Reality seeps into fantasies and the other way round. There is a hidden fantasy world, not officially allowed to exist, inhabited by people like Eva. Sjön utan namn makes a claim for the importance of telling stories, and the fact that everyone has a story worth telling.

Further, the novel is organized in a sophisticated arrangement of time planes, handling several parallel stories at once. This allows Johansson to give us a mighty working class family story, branching back into history, in the limited space of a normal-length novel. It goes down easily thanks to its deceptively smooth style with a dry, sometimes burlesque sense of humour. Although this is a dark story it never depicts hopelessness, but strength, struggle, courage and the amazing ability of humans to hope and go on.

Kristina Sjögren

Also by Kjell Johansson

  • Rummet under golvet (The Room Under the Floor). Reviewed by Kristina Sjögren in SBR 2007:2.
  • Huset vid Flon (The House beside Flon). Reviewed by Irene Scobbie in SBR 1998:1.

Other reviews by Kristina Sjögren

Other reviews in SBR 2007:2

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