Söderströms, 2007. ISBN: 9789515224422
Reviewed by Neil Smith in SBR 2007:2
Frida and Frida is the second novel by a young Finland-Swedish author. The book has two narrative voices: one belongs to Selma, who is thirteen years old, the middle child of seven in a fairly dysfunctional family of Finland-Swedish potato-farmers. The other is Irina, the family’s eldest daughter, who is now studying art in Paris. The two sisters take in it turns to tell their stories, and together they paint a compelling portrait of the family.
Selma finds life on the farm frustrating, and often baffling, and she misses Irina badly. She is surrounded by noisy siblings, and stuck in the middle of her parents’ frequent rows. As she puts it, in the opening sentences of the novel: "Our family is a bit like the the von Trapp family in The Sound of Music. Apart from the fact that we don’t sing when things go wrong. We just yell or keep quiet. And there are no Alps here either." Hers is a quiet, reflective voice in the midst of a madhouse.
Irina seems to have been trying to escape the oppressive atmosphere at home all her life, first by painting (taking her inspiration from Frida Kahlo), then by moving to Helsinki, and now, most recently, to Paris. Here she has met and fallen in love with another Frida, from Stockholm: "Frida Kahlo was my first love, and she is the second".
Selma and Irina’s parents are both unhappy and unfulfilled, their dreams either forgotten or suppressed: their depressed father tells Selma that he is looking for "Landet som icke är" (the land which is not), in reference to Edith Södergran’s posthumous poetry collection. Their frustrated and impotent mother is prone to violent rages, although Selma admits that "she hasn’t really done anything wrong. She’s just a mum playing the role of a mum in front of a pretty large audience that spends most of the time booing. And throwing tomatoes and mashed potato."
A description of the plot of this engaging novel will appear disconcertingly slight: Selma describes life at home, and Irina describes her life in Paris, until the two threads unite when Irina brings Frida back to Finland to celebrate Midsummer and to exorcise the ghosts that have driven her away. Irina finally achieves reconciliation with her family, as the nature of her sexuality is revealed and eventually accepted. But the strength of this book lies not in plot but in the detail and accuracy of the description: gestures and expressions are captured with a precision that suggests a lifetime of observation. This means that even the novel’s incidental characters make a memorable impression – the eight-year-old Tobbe, for instance, who is obsessed with Spiderman, or Sandra, the girlfriend of one of the brothers, who never stops giggling and saying the wrong thing at the very worst time.
The chapters set in the family home are perhaps the more immediately affecting and recognizable; the depiction of Irina’s life with Frida in Paris has a dreamlike quality to it. Indeed, her life there is, for Irina, dreamlike – she has found peaceful communion with a lover who, like her, lives for art, a way of life that seemed utterly impossible at home.
Swedish-speaking Finland has been responsible for some of the finest writing in Swedish for many years now. Anyone with concerns about the future of this legacy should read Emma Juslin’s book to find reassurance in the confidence and precision of her prose.