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Anne Swärd, Till sista andetaget (Breathless)

Svante Weyler,  2009. ISBN: 9789185849338

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2010:2

As Godard’s New Wave standard A bout de souffle celebrates its 50th anniversary, this novel that shares its title takes France’s epitome of celluloid cool as its subtext, but is also very Swedish, a new addition to Sweden’s long tradition of novels about childhood and adolescence. The unconventional growing-up years of Lo, this novel’s narrator, have an intensity and emotional turmoil that seem to make adjustment to a settled adult life impossible. Lo’s family uproots itself from the north of Sweden and moves south to buy a ‘new’ house and start a new life. Lo has the problem of growing up the only baby in an extended family, with the many eyes of all those grandparents, uncles and aunts constantly upon her. Her rebellion takes the form of a forbidden friendship with someone whose domestic circumstances are the very opposite of her own: Lukas is being brought up by his violent, Hungarianmigrant father. His mother and sister died in a house blaze – possibly caused by Lukas, who is dangerously drawn to fire. She is six, he thirteen, a failure at school, with a dead-end job in the local factory looming ahead. Lo and Lukas develop an obsessively close – though clandestine – friendship that lasts for many years. Initially it has the flavour of a children’s adventure story, with the thrill of hiding out in an abandoned house, and idyllic summer days of swimming and lazing. It is an asexual friendship, a prolongation of childhood, even long after Lukas reaches puberty He seems to be waiting for her fifteenth birthday, at which point an abortive Copenhagen funfair trip with a planned – though unconsummated – night at a hotel spoils it all. ‘Sex was the thing that could never be allowed to happen to us’ writes Lo. During Lukas’s father’s lingering illness, the two of them stay together in the house to nurse him; it is a mute, trapped time in which they barely tick over, but she finds that somehow his grief makes it harder for him to repress his sexuality She has an overwhelming urge to get away. Her deus ex machina arrives in the person of Yoel, an interpreter who has answered their desperate advertisement for someone to help Lukas’s father finally say the important things to his son. An essentially spoilt and shallow son of a rich family, used to getting his own way, Yoel snatches Lo as you would take a sweet from a bowl in passing. He whisks her off to Stockholm in Lukas’s car, but soon tires of his prize. Lo then drifts into a rootless life, a series of casual relationships, temporary jobs and rented rooms. In Stockholm, Krakow, Budapest and New York she virtually throws herself at men she meets, all of them unsavoury and some downright dangerous. But it is hard to tell if she is predator or prey; her elation can so quickly turn to cold fear. Lo’s name means ‘lynx’ in Swedish, but is she a wild cat, or a little girl lost? Is she living out a life that her mother craved but could never experience, or always trying to recapture what she had with Lukas? Lo’s relationship with her mother Katarina is finely drawn. Katarina is herself a fascinating character: we see her in flashback as a young woman, coming to view the new house alone with her uncle, with a slight sexual frisson between them; then as Lo’s complex, conflicted mother, and later coping with old age and regret. She loved new French cinema in her youth, and it is her videotape of Breathless that Lo and Lukas watched until they knew the dialogue by heart, finding cigarettes, hat and sunglasses to act out the bedroom scene between Jean Seberg and Jean Paul Belmondo. The novel opens with a chapter that could indeed be taken straight out of a New Wave French film: a hot summer in the late 1960s; a heavily pregnant Katarina sitting in a deckchair craving a cigarette, reading Anaïs Nin’s erotic memoirs and picking names for her coming daughter. It is not just Lukas’s parting shot to Lo, ‘See you in Hell’, that prevents her returning for many years, but also a conviction that you can never retrieve your childhood.The two never meet again, and she learns from her mother that he probably went away to work on an oil rig; Lo feels sure he will have met his death there. She finds it hard to forgive Katarina, who froze out Lukas. ‘My mother taught me nothing, not even how to be careful of what she was scared of,’ Lo mourns. Katarina’s mothering was indeed a confusing mix of protection and permissiveness, but her warnings not to play with fire went unheeded. There is a hint of wasted lives in the image of the rotting crops towards the end.The novel ends on an unresolved, low-key note, but there is a form of epiphany as Lo drives home to be with her mother. Swärd’s novel is beautifully written, in controlled, evocative, at times aphoristic language; there was writing to savour on every page of Breathless. Reviewers in Sweden were full of praise, too, some proclaiming the book the Swedish novel of the year.

Also by Anne Swärd

  • Vera (Vera). Reviewed by Deborah Bragan-Turner in SBR 2018:1.
  • Kvicksand (Quicksand). Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2007:2.
  • Polarsommar (Polar Summer). Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2004:1.

Other reviews by Sarah Death

Other reviews in SBR 2010:2

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