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Vattnen Susanne Ringell, Vattnen (The Waters)

Söderströms,  2010. ISBN: 9789515227324

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2011:1

Frank Cottrell Boyce, in a recent Guardian review of a new volume by Salley Vickers, proclaimed this ‘a golden moment in the history of the short story’. In an age when commercial pressures have led to ever narrowing genre categories, he argued, the short story retains its unpredictability. It is ‘the only form of entertainment left where you don’t quite know what to expect’. Finland-Swedish writer Susanne Ringell’s latest collection is certainly a case in point. The loosely linking theme of ‘waters’ takes us far and wide: from holiday destinations by the Mediterranean and Bosporus to Nordic waterscapes like Botbyviken near Helsinki and the locks at Borensberg on Sweden’s Göta Canal. The stories’ protagonists may be on their travels, but virtually all of them find it hard to put behind them their troubled pasts or their everyday problems back home. In ‘Tanya’, for example, a female tourist on a sun-drenched Greek island recalls a poignant encounter in her youth at a swimming bath with a blind teenage girl whose call for friendship and help she failed to answer. In ‘Navelstenen’ (The Navel Stone) a woman surrenders herself to a massage in a splendid old bathhouse in Istanbul in which an exploding light bulb triggers historical-scientific flashbacks and creates a serendipitous bonding. In ‘Intrigen’ (The Plot) the waters are amniotic fluid, and the narrator an unborn child which decides to abort itself to get its mother’s attention and ultimately help her make something of her life. In ‘Barnen i gullregnet’ (literally: The Children in the Golden Rain) the ‘water’ is the gullregn, the laburnum tree flowering by the children’s graves in Lönneberga churchyard. The long story ‘Berlin’ is a mood piece recalling what it was like to be young and carefree in that city in the 1980s, with the sleazy Bistro Calvados - where no one ever ate a morsel and the air was thick with cigarette smoke - as your base. The only water here seems to be a glimpse of the River Spree, but the constant flow of the Warsteiner beer makes up for lack of H2O. One ultra-short story, ‘Bila’ (In the Car) has nothing self-evidently watery about it, either, but is an interior monologue of a woman in a rising panic as the man beside her in the car, relaxed on his summer holiday, drives too fast. Ringell references Stig Dagerman’s famous story ‘Att döda ett barn’ (To Kill a Child) while the woman sits there terrified of what might happen around the next bend. In ‘This Country is Closed’, newly divorced Eleonora finds a holiday island less than hospitable and its sights not what the guidebook promises. The story’s end reflects her negative mindset: she has walked for hours; she will never find the waterfall; she will miss the ferry; she loves him still and it was all a huge mistake. ‘Slussarna i Borensberg’ (The Borensberg Locks) anatomises two, very different couples. One pair is young and on edge, out of sympathy with each other and largely oblivious to the luxury of the hotel setting; the Syrian male half seems consumed with some kind of vengeance and hates the ‘stagnant idyll’ of Sweden. The other two have been together a long time and their low-key enjoyment of their holiday and their walk along the towpath, which could have appeared dull and negative in other contexts, seems by contrast a hymn to the mutual understanding and companionship of middle-aged marriage. But a mere catalogue of settings and plots cannot do this collection justice. It is the language that is the real highlight; this is certainly writing to savour. Vattnen won 2010 Svenska Yles prize for fiction, and the judges’ verdict was that ‘each word is finely honed, each individual sentence charged with meaning.’ Tia Strandén, reviewing the book for Books from Finland, draws a parallel between the book’s cover design and the characters in the various stories: ‘The film of “ice” around the book reinforces the mood that lingers in the reader afterwards: there is something brittle about the characters, something that prevents them from flowing, carefree life.’ I interpreted the filmy outer jacket more as the mysterious opacity through which our vision is filtered when we look into water – as if we can never get the full picture. These stories leave one with a sense of tantalising glimpses of hidden lives, as when glinting fish dart by.

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