Albert Bonniers förlag, 2008. ISBN: 9789100112998
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2009:1
In March 1822, a body is washed ashore on the west coast of Sweden, after the worst storm in living memory. It is instantly recognised as that of Erland Frank, a feared local farmer and boatbuilder. How did he meet his death? His eighteen-year-old stepdaughter Tora, a fragile but determined figure on Frank’s great horse, rides over to identify the body. The intense and glowing novel that follows uncovers the complex relationship between two stubborn individuals thrown together by fate. The historical background speaks to our own times, rocked by a shockingly sudden financial collapse: in 1809, theshoals of herring that have been a vital source of income to the fishing communities disappear, and the population is reduced to scavenging and starvation. Frank, jobless and hungry, hears of a ship lost at sea and a captain’s widow out in the islands. He makes a gruelling trek across the ice to offer to run the widow’s farm until her younger brother Arvid is old enough to take over. Before long, Frank has married the widow and obtained official papers extending his rights to the farm.Tora’s mother dies in childbirth when the girl is only eight and she, who so admired her seafaring father’s freedom of spirit, is left with only the increasingly fanciful and unreliable Arvid and an old maidservant to comfort her. By then, Frank is deep in schemes: turning pasture over to more profitable rye; buying shares in trading ships; building boats; taking control. He exploits the fact that Arvid is a dreamer; the young man spends his time running off to the woods and is soon talked out of his birthright with threats, money for drink, and other gifts.The awkward, spirited little stepdaughter is sent away to learn housekeeping and sewing at a prosperous vicarage, and at length returns home, reluctantly efficient and capable. With a large household to run, farm maids and hands to be fed, supplies eked out through harsh winters, wool to be spun and shirts to be made, Tora is forced into a maturity and responsibility beyond her years.This was an era when life was work and little else; Mattson’s evocations of tasks such as backbreaking harvest toil are minutely researched and intensely tactile. Social life here amounts to little more than snatched moments of fireside companionability, a party to launch a new boat, a funeral (the novel’s title is from a well-known Swedish funeral hymn). From the day of her mother’s death, Tora is tormented by the question, ‘Where can I be?’, later formulated in other ways, like ‘Whose is the money?’ Frank’s frustrated ambition and Tora’s inarticulate jealousy are a volatile combination.They circle each other with wary respect, neither prepared to ask the other for anything, each afraid of giving the other the tiniest advantage. Frank makes a name locally as an uncompromising profiteer and harsh taskmaster, caring little for others’ good opinion. But as Tora grows to womanhood, he feels something else, expressing itself in intangible ways: an urge to show her the wind making patterns in the crops; the haunting sound of her needle going through fabric when he is lost in the forest. Looking back, one realises the narrative is strewn with his tentative approaches and her rebuffs, such as a request to name a ship after her, which she refuses, or the impulsive purchase of a length of soft red velvet, which she never makes up into a dress.This slow-burning battle of wills and a tension with an increasingly sexual edge give the story a gripping momentum, as one wonders how Frank will meet the end that we know awaits him.There is a great sensuality in Tora stroking the wolfskin coat she is making for Frank, feeling its animal warmth. He, meanwhile, has appropriated the locket she thought Arvid had stolen, and wears it secretly with a lock of her hair inside. Tora’s inward acknowledgement of what binds them, yet fierce resentment of it, make her seem as likely to become Frank’s murderer as his lover. Mattson says she set out to write a pre-psychology book, one in which there is no omniscient narrator, no distance, no irony. The characters struggle to describe their emotions; it is left to the reader to interpret them. So when the sea snatches Frank away, just as it did her father, Tora feels only wretched numbness and a sense of falling. People are what fascinate Mattson, and she has no interest in recreating the language of the period. As in her other historical novel Snö (Snow), the idiom is a neutral and timeless one, but the words are exquisite, the vibrant imagery borrowed from domestic life and the shifting seasons.The light may be ‘sloe blue’, and hands fumbling over sewing ‘as slippery as pan lids’. Loosely based on an inheritance story in the author’s own family history, this book is part psychological drama, part minutely observed social history, part poetry. The sea’s edge setting and cast of seafarers and traders are suggestive of Mattson’s fellow west-coast writer, the popular nineteenth-century authoress Emile Flygare Carlén, but surely there are also hints of Selma Lagerlöf’s classic Gösta Berlings saga in the ball scene followed by the headlong sleigh ride across the ice with the threat of approaching wolves? For its intense and lyrical evocation of a place and a time, the novel has also been likened to Per Petterson’s prizewinning Out Stealing Horses – but with major women characters as well as men.