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Jessica Kolterjahn, Ut ur skuggan (Out of the Shadow)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2007. ISBN: 9789137130620

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2008:1

This original novel is narrated in the voice of Agnes, growing up a very privileged young woman in the upper echelons of Stockholm society of the 1920s. Her father is a wealthy businessman, but neither he nor her querulous, antagonistic mother offer her any warmth or affection. Even Carl-Henrik, the brother to whom she was close in childhood, has now been swept up by studies and travel, and all his parents’ hopes are clearly invested in him. Little is expected of Agnes except to be helpful at home and socialise decorously – tasks in which her mother considers her to have failed dismally. Her only rewarding relationship in this emotionally starved family is with her maternal grandfather, who suffered a severe stroke when she was eight years old and can only communicate by writing. In 1925, he gives her a Leica camera and starts helping her practise her photographic skills, before moving on to teach her darkroom techniques. Later he arranges for her to spend several days a week working for Herr Schiller, who runs a small photographic studio for him.

Agnes’s work is for a long period her only pleasure and salvation from boredom; where relationships are concerned, she is just an observer. Then at a party she meets Claire Lagher, a business associate of her father’s, to whose crooked smile and sense of humour she is immediately attracted, and the attraction appears mutual. Agnes learns that Claire is a known libertine, but nothing can sully the pure joy she feels when at length they embark on a secret physical relationship. Agnes writes, "My parents don’t understand what it looks like inside me. How my feelings tie themselves in knots and refuse to cooperate". Hers is a complex psychology, a vivid inner life; she perceives her emotions in shifting layers of colour. But she is grounded enough to know that both society and her family would condemn her unorthodox behaviour.

Her father, too, it transpires, has been having an affair with Claire. When father and daughter accidentally meet in the front entrance of Claire’s apartment block, Agnes is shocked to the core by the vehemence of his reaction. She runs out into the street, but the sound of Claire’s distraught voice calling her back distracts her, and she is knocked down by a car. The accident leaves her partially crippled, unable to walk without a stick. Her father’s reaction is to forbid any mention of the episode, as if to freeze the inappropriate feelings out of her. When a promising young novelist friend of her brother’s, Viktor, joins the family at their island summer cottage, Agnes experiences a sudden physical passion for him, and allows herself to believe it is lasting love, so relieved are her parents at the prospect of marrying her off conventionally. But marital relations swiftly cool, Agnes has a miscarriage, Victor suffers writer’s block and a recurrence of his earlier mental illness. He leaves her, to her parents’ horror. It is her aunt, her father’s perceptive younger sister Emelie, who mentors Agnes and helps her peel herself away from her life with Viktor, buy new clothes and crop her hair. Agnes experiences love and passion again with the gamine Miriam, but it is now the 1930s, Miriam is a Jewess whose outspoken journalist brother has gone missing in Hamburg, and she is forced to flee to North America, leaving Agnes again bereft and plunged into depression and inertia. The death of her beloved grandfather is a greater blow still, but she does inherit his apartment and his photographic studio. Agnes has always known she is privileged; now she has complete independence. By this time secretly divorced, she relaxes a little, resigns herself to childlessness, learns to love her much younger sister and other children in their circle, genuinely rejoices in Carl-Henrik’s and Emelie’s respective happy marriages, and thinks herself content. But when Claire, now married with one child and another on the way, comes back into her life, they feel as deeply for each other as ever. In a classically choreographed denouement on the island at midsummer, they are left alone together, and neither wants to resist. The novel ends before they reveal their feelings to the world, but this time it seems they really want to. And Emelie, at least, will understand. A few days before, she tells Agnes that acknowledging what flows in your blood is not wrong: "You call it a poison, a torment. I call it a gift".

Out of the Shadow is a sustained, understated but moving portrayal of a person, sometimes baffled and sometimes euphoric, exploring her own feelings, sexuality and reactions to the world. Agnes is not a character one immediately warms to, but her stoicism, honesty and self-scrutiny command our respect. Her history is written in precisely-weighed, poetic language, its simplicity belying the strong emotions it so memorably conveys. The period, too, is evoked unobtrusively but well. Agnes grows up in a world in which domestic servants, balls and house parties are taken for granted, but times are starting to change. We go with her and her family, for example, to the opening of the new Stockholm central station, "as lovely as a church". We witness Agnes’s father, who has been criticised for doing business with the Germans during the 1914-18 war, becoming a Nazi sympathiser. The soundtrack of the younger generation is jazz, and the messiness of real life, glorious and melancholy, chafes against the conventions of a passing age.

"One of the many intelligent aspects of this novel is that it is not a novel about homosexuality. Kolterjahn sexes neither sexuality nor love; she investigates their humanity." So writes Kristina Lundblad, in her review of the book in the Gothenburg Post. Perhaps that is why Agnes is such an avid reader of Selma Lagerlöf, that renowned student of human love in all its guises.

Sarah Death

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