Alfabeta, 2007. ISBN: 9789150108248
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2008:1
Inger Edelfeldt writes for adults but has also published an impressive string of books loosely aimed at younger people. In these she often combines her fascination with fantasy with a serious concern for the psychological and social pressures of the teenage years, not least the vexed question of personal identity and pressure to conform. Secret Face is to my mind her best book yet in this category. She deploys her vivid, quirky imagination to equal effect in both the fairytale elements and the modern-day characters, liberally illustrating the book with intricate line drawings in that delightfully unsettling style she has made her own. One-time illustrator of Tolkien and translator of Hungarian fairytales, the multifaceted Edelfeldt has steeped herself in both visual and written fantasy traditions. She is clearly also familiar with the rich legacy of AngloSaxon children’s fiction: Secret Face opens in classic children’s book mode with an outbreak of chicken pox, and a child sent away to stay in an unfamiliar setting, prompting associations with perennial favourites like Tom’s Midnight Garden and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In this case it is thirteen-year-old Astrid being packed off across Stockholm to stay at the cramped flat of a chaotic, impoverished writer aunt, to avoid infecting her cosseted elder brother, whose studies must not be disrupted. Things are not going well for Astrid: she has found it hard to settle after the family’s recent move to Stockholm, and lacks friends and motivation at school. The prospect of not seeing classmate Filip, on whom she has a secret crush, while banished at her ageing hippy aunt’s, with a broken TV set and no internet access, is a dreadful one. Knitting, reading magazines, scratching her face and worrying about scars make poor amusement. Malin takes pity and proposes they write a story together, a somewhat childish sounding project which nonetheless soon has Astrid gripped. Writing in The Guardian about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in particular, and parallel fictional universes in general, Professor John Mullan observes: “Inventing the infrastructure of an imagined world is not as difficult as imagining the connections between such a world and ours”. It is a challenge Inger Edelfeldt has faced more than once, most recently in Shadows in the Mirror (2004) in which she opted for an “Alice Through the Looking Glass” approach. By making the imagined world in Secret Face one over which the writers have complete control, she has found an elegant solution.The chapters alternate between the two spheres, the fairy tale functioning as a space in which the stalled love lives of Astrid and Malin can be cathartically explored and distorted. Malin proceeds to unfold a witty tale, which with its greenskinned heroine and rampant subversion of fairytale conventions has much the same mischievous impact as the first Shrek film.We are introduced to a kingdom ruled by a king and queen hoping for a child. But here ends any similarity to other such kingdoms, where princesses have golden hair, princes are charming and everyone lives happily ever after. This King is only concerned with hunting trips and his collection of weird artefacts. Anything or anyone magical is outlawed, their existence officially denied and punishable by law. Thus when the bored Queen Amara is nocturnally impregnated by a strangely attractive supernatural visitor, it is vital to deceive the King into believing it is a normal child, and he is the father. This would be easier if Amara had not complained loudly in the palace garden about the coming of spring, making the Spring Fairy cast a spell so the baby is born bright green, from her hair to her tiny feet. Once Princess Primavera starts being seen in public, she is obliged to wear a special wig, mask and gloves, and only allowed to speak or eat in private. The search for an eligible suitor leads to further problems and in the end Primavera, aided by her mysterious, cloaked visitor Mångskinn – who is actually her father though she does not know it – has to flee the drunken advances of her ill-chosen new husband and run away into the forest with a wolf for protection. I will not reveal here how the plot resolves itself, but the whole project becomes something of a meditation on the nature of fairytales. Motifs and characters teasingly reworked in the course of the story include the birthday ball, the gingerbread house, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood and a set of three trolls. Just occasionally teetering on the brink of preachiness, Edelfeldt injects girlpower interest into both the outer and the inner stories. In Malin’s fairytale, the women are by far the stronger characters, the males – or at any rate the mortal ones – often pigheaded and self-indulgent. Old stories receive a fearlessly female update: our heroine avoids eating the soup she has cunningly poisoned by claiming she has period pains, for instance. In the framework narrative Malin, incensed by Astrid's willingness to play a passive or secondary role in her imagined relationship with Filip, starts a discussion of whether it is okay to be “girly”, and why Filip’s Warhammer games and career ambitions are no more valid than Astrid’s hobbies and dreams. Malin is not much good at helping with any schoolwork except Swedish creative writing, but she enjoys advising her niece on everything from boys to philosophy of life, functioning as a colourful, unconventional role model. In one final departure from the fairytale norm, the storyteller declines to conclude her plot neatly, handing responsibility for that to her niece, who by then has turned her interest back to real life. No longer needing to be bolstered by fiction, Astrid ends the story on a rushed and unstructured note. But her time at her aunt’s has helped her see that she is not obliged to conform unthinkingly, or to suppress her own personality in order to win the friendship of a boy. She is realising everything is not black and white, and her story, like Primavera’s, ends on an optimistic note where the embracing of difference is concerned. In her work for young people, the empathetic Edelfeldt has tended to put herself in the shoes of her teenage protagonists.This particularly enjoyable book is a new departure in that she seems to identify more openly with the aunt figure and revel in the bohemian writer/mentor role. Rounding up the best of Swedish young adult fiction of 2007 (“Föräldrar är idioter”, Aftonbladet 14.12.07) Petter Lindgren awards Secret Face a welldeserved joint gold medal.