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Julia Dahlberg, Islossning (Break-Up of the Ice)

Söderströms,  2011. ISBN: 9789515228000

Reviewed by Anna-Lisa Murrell in SBR 2011:2

‘In the narrow, blurry telescope of memory I see it bobbing far out in the sea’s waves. The island. My island. Beyond the end of the world. The navel of creation. The only place I ever wished to get away from and the place I’ve noticed myself longing for.’ Julia Dahlberg’s debut novel Islossning, which opens thus, is a multi-dimensional narrative, a modern skärgårdsroman (skerries novel), written partly in the East Nyland dialect of Finland-Swedish, with a helpful short glossary at the end of the book. Young Sofia, who tells the story, comes from the fictional island of Ängö in the Nyland skerries. The title conveys a great deal about the contents of the book: it signifies a time of change – hesitation and liberation. The author describes life on such islands, the lack of medical facilities, and the lengthy two-and-a-half hour ferry trip to the mainland. The islands are both open and isolated, the sea connecting them as well as keeping them apart. Sofia is a gentle soul, who befriends the elderly boatbuilder William. Both are intellectuals and that sets them apart from the other inhabitants of the island. William’s dour father Gustav Adolf is a pilot. The men in his family have been pilots for many generations, for as long as anyone can remember, but he also owns a farm. Julia Dahlberg presents us with a family history about the taciturn Gustav Adolf, his wife Karin and their three sons, Valter, Olof and William. Then comes the Winter War in 1939 followed by the Continuation War, and their lives are turned around. Julia Dahlberg writes with great sensitivity and understanding about this time of profound change in Finland’s history and how it seriously affected people’s lives in unexpected ways. Valter, the favourite son, dies in the Continuation War and Gustav Adolf turns bitter towards his other sons. He rejects Olof, who leaves the farm. When Karin dies, Gustav Adolf and William are left to fend for themselves. The farm is neglected. William leaves, too and pursues his interest in boat-building in Helsingfors and later in Sweden. After 25 years he returns to the farm and then spends his time as a local boat-builder. Young Sofia learns more about William and the family’s story. She also leaves the island herself to study history in Helsingfors. Sofia says: ‘This is the story about all the stories that have influenced my life.’ William and Sofia are both gentle people with shared interests. While listening to Mozart’s Requiem, which William is always playing, Sophia borrows a book about the life of Mozart. Later she becomes acquainted with books by Ferlin, Diktonius, Södergran, Olsson, Parland, Björling, Strindberg, Moberg and Lagerlöf – books that don’t appear in the library of the island’s school. And later Sofia calls William’s cats by these authors’ forenames – Nils, Elmer, Edith, Hagar, Henry, Gunnar, August, Vilhelm and Selma. William’s love of poetry and stories inspires Sofia. She knows that she must leave the island and so goes to Helsingfors to study history. But more than history in general – she is fascinated by William’s family history in particular, and she explores it in this novel. William dies and passes the farm on to Sofia, who returns to the island. But will she stay? ‘Was this really the way I had thought of going?’ she wonders. Or was it William’s way? At the same time she knows she wants to stay. ‘I didn’t just float here in the whirlpools of history like a helpless piece of driftwood in the currents of the sea – I swam a bit too. Struggled against them.’ The novel ends with the locals left wondering, too. ‘Och hur ska flickon klar sej med de stora, gambel huse?’ And how will the girl manage to look after the big old house?

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