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Åsa Linderborg, Mig äger ingen (Nobody Owns Me)

Atlas,  2007. ISBN: 9789173892261

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2008:1

"Dad was an open-hearth forger and worked with steel heated in furnaces that reached more than a thousand degrees. A sort of modern blacksmith, he explained when I asked, but I preferred to think of him as a dragon tamer. With cunning, bravery and boundless skill he dared each morning to take on the dragons of Kopparlunden, lying there with their zigzag backs, sighing out smoke over the town."

What makes Åsa Linderborg’s experiences as the only child in a single-parent family so dramatically different is that from the age of seven she was brought up by her father Leif, a forge master at the Metalworks in Västerås, who made no concessions to standard childrearing but drew on a huge store of love and concern. It is a compelling and moving book, with a faintly regretful, confessional tone, but suffused with affection. Åsa Linderborg could never face talking home truths with her father, even when she reached adulthood and had children of her own; this book more than makes amends. Her portrait of her father, such a flawed, contradictory, essentially human man, is superbly written.

Åsa’s girlhood recollections are a painful mixture of love and adulation, boredom, fear and squirming embarrassment. Dad is a hero with mighty muscles and vast hands: she once saw him lift a Volvo single-handed out of a ditch; he coolly and authoritatively breaks up the traditional Christmas fights between his relatives; and he is a virtuoso performer at the skating rink. He relentlessly cleans and tidies his flat, and is as proud of his knick-knacks, velvet curtains and crystal window lamps as he is of Åsa’s prowess at school. He buys her sweets and books and never talks down to her. But nor does he ever think of soap and toothpaste, of personal hygiene, clean sheets, nutrition, budgeting or sensible shoes. He pees in the sink, takes money from Åsa’s piggy bank and never pays it back, drinks and smokes away his wages and routinely leaves his pre-school daughter alone in the dark and cold outside a nursery that has not yet opened for the day, because he has to get to work.

Fortunately there is an extended family to help Åsa out, and her existence gives her father every excuse for sponging off them. Dad and Åsa get a cooked meal at his parents’ place after work each day, and his sisters welcome the little girl and her dirty washing to their homes during his weekend drinking binges. Åsa’s mother Tanja lives in the same town, and Åsa spends every other weekend with her and her new partner and child. The feisty Tanja is partially of Russian descent, and comes from a long line of women who abandoned their children to be brought up by the male line. Hers is an unconventional family of Communists and political activists, intelligent and bohemian. Åsa’s paternal relations worry far more about what people will think, and although her father is eternally indignant and dreams of a classless society, he would never step out of line to fight for it.

Leif is a feckless, self-destructive alcoholic much prone to seeing himself as a victim, but the hard physical demands of his work with lethal molten metal do genuinely take their toll. He feels he has to drink to cope with his job, and his retching in the sink before they go out to his bicycle each morning is as much to do with nerves as with yesterday’s beer. But it is still a crushing blow to his self-esteem when he is made redundant at 51. As his daughter puts it, his whole identity and pride were in the steel, and in the end it was the dragons who tamed him. "I gave them the best years of my life," he says, without exaggeration. His personal tragedy, ending with premature death at 61, is one small part of a larger pattern: the industrial decline of Västerås, where all the old factories have closed down, and the smell of machine oil has been replaced by wafts of deep pan pizza and caffe latte.

"My childhood was certainly different," Linderborg concludes, "but I still wouldn’t have wanted to swap it for anyone else’s." The immensely readable Mig äger ingen takes its title from a poem by Gunnar Ekelöf and is the author’s first autobiographical work. It won the 2007 Ivar Lo-Johansson Prize and was shortlisted for the August Prize. Reviewers have been swift to hail the book as a new classic of the growing-up genre so central to Sweden’s literary canon, and ordinary Swedish people seem to have taken it to their hearts, too. According to the Swedish booksellers’ magazine, its sales in the run-up to Christmas 2007 outstripped those of the August winner, putting it second only to the latest Harry Potter book.

Sarah Death

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