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Bengt Ohlsson, Hennes mjukaste röst (Her Softest Voice)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2007. ISBN: 9789100113032

Reviewed by Silvester Mazzarella in SBR 2008:1

This is Bengt Ohlsson’s first novel since Gregorius (2004, now available in English translation from Portobello Books). Leaving Hjalmar Söderberg’s Stockholm of a century ago, we find ourselves in contemporary Canada – the Atlantic province of Nova Scotia, to be exact. Karen is recovering in hospital from serious injuries sustained in a car crash just after being abandoned by her live-in lover Richard, the man round whom she had decided to build her life. Not that Karen is an inexperienced youngster: she is long divorced from her husband Stevie and her two children are grown up: Julia, married to a businessman, and Frank, also in a stable relationship and no longer living at home. And Karen herself, together with an assistant, Elena, owns and runs a business, a retail shop for quality toys. Hennes mjukaste röst is the story of Karen’s recovery, not only from her physical injuries, but from her emotional dependence on Richard and on her children. In hospital she forms a new friendship with a younger woman, Rita, who is recovering from life-threatening anorexia.

Once home from hospital, Karen needs to face further problems. One of her first decisions is that she doesn’t want another man in her life, or a female partner either, for that matter. She does not feel equal to resuming control of her shop, and makes arrangements to sell it to Elena. She has a need to work through strong feelings about her late parents, her hopelessly alcoholic and ultimately suicidal father, and her efficient and apparently cold mother, whom she could not help rejecting even when she was dying. By the end of the novel, and despite further material blows, Karen’s life is again on an even keel; she has found fulfilment in a new world as a writer in the form of an ongoing fictional evocation of a symbolic woman from ancient Roman history, a character who became real to her when she started reading a four-volume study of the rise and fall of the Roman empire and realised that while history books usually tell of the achievements of men, it is women, generation after generation, who make life liveable.

Such a superficial description, inevitable in a brief review, trivialises the novel, giving the writer no chance to speak for himself. It cannot take into account the depth and intensity of Ohlsson’s understanding and analysis of his women characters (as already seen, for example, in the contrasted characters of Helga and Anna in Gregorius) and his remarkably expressive and powerful descriptive writing. Here is how he sees the fictitious Roman woman who becomes such an important figure in Karen’s life:

"She flashes like a spark between the hands gesticulating in the car. She is the disappointment dragging Rita’s feet when she stumbles on the stairs as she runs up to the shop. She is all that hurts and needs comfort, all that is confused and needs explanation, all that is incomplete and needs a kitchen to walk into and a lap to cuddle on.

"She reverberates in Karen like a tuning-fork, sometimes so softly as to be almost inaudible, sometimes so loudly that she nearly flies apart. She offers Karen unlimited companionship, and entices her into a loneliness quite unlike any she has known before, complete in itself."

Silvester Mazzarella

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