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Kolka Bengt Ohlsson, Kolka

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2010. ISBN: 9789100124281

Reviewed by Tuva Tod in SBR 2011:1

Bengt Ohlsson supplies us with more than just a few well-chosen pictures, verbal and visual, to convey the modern world. All our history, personal and social, is ingrained in what we call ‘now’. The writer’s concern is to render this evident. Ohlsson is interested not only in how we find our feet in the world; he realises that, for all of us, psychological factors have been important in history. Ohlsson bids us believe that our contemporary psychology can shape the future of individuals, as happens in this book. The story is of a Latvian teenage girl whose father owns a bar in Latvia. The middle-aged man has just married a British landowner and they have all started their lives in her (Katrina’s) beautiful country house. All seems rosy. The storytelling voice is the anonymous teenager’s. The first few pages are dedicated to the wedding guests, but say nothing of what was worn, eaten or said, or of anybody’s status. All are milling about throughout the gardens and marquees. They are notable for the importance they place on their sex lives, as is evident from the hordes of unattended children present. Everybody is interested in sleeping with as many and as varied partners as they can manage. Parents live only for good sex. This is what Malthus warned of, back in the eighteenth century: mankind must not produce too many children. Overpopulation will lead to shortages, family life will suffer and everybody will starve in the end. The narrative is in the first person and her voice is both clear and clouded. Her role as a teenager in a new country presents her with choices of how to react to her father living in England, and to the lady of the house and mistress of the estate, her sweet-mannered stepmother who is her father’s new wife. The girl also has to face her mates in her new high-class school. The way she pictures all these new encounters is ambivalent. There is nothing wrong with the society she is offered so generously; the difficulty is that she is evidently not equipped to enjoy her time with these people, despite their kindness. In this story, pictures and imaging are important building elements, and are often drawn from the internet. Ideas from language we use conventionally are given a new twist by the narrator’s pen. We get ‘reality’: e.g. a taste of British life, descriptions of other countries and races, her feelings of interest for her stepmother’s imperial family history, what it feels like going down a street in an ordinary British town negotiating the traffic. We also enter into historical quandaries such as ‘was Chamberlain really wrong?’ or ‘what is the legacy of the British class system?’ The narrator is intelligent, well informed and can be satirical as well as humorous. The internet, however, takes on a life of its own, threatening to destroy not only the narrator’s peace of mind, but the safety of the family. Once you are caught up in the net, you can be taken over by other users. The internet can lead to abuse from many quarters. Some people misuse it deliberately, as the narrator does while engaging in disastrous efforts to make sense of her relationship with her stepmother Katrina. The person she enrols to perform a nefarious deed to justify her hatred of Katrina is a psychopath who calls himself the Lone Wolf. The outcome is horrendous, and only Katrina’s expertise with her own computer prevents a total disaster. The rationale of this written drama is that we not only exist together, but also have to make sense of ourselves for the benefit of others. We need mutual responsibility. As a means of substituting personal relationships, the internet is simply not adequate. Overpopulation was the risk of the ‘free love’ favoured by the wedding guests at the beginning of the book, according to Malthus. We need to know that love is never free.

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