Albert Bonniers förlag, 2011. ISBN: 9789100125714
Reviewed by Deborah Bragan-Turner in SBR 2012:1
Anna-Karin Palm’s fourth novel brings usa tale of Stockholm in the winter of 1985to 1986, a vivid evocation of time andplace and intertwined lives. Against thegrey-white scenes of the city’s streets andbuildings, Palm introduces her colourfularray of characters and controls theirintersecting fates in an atmosphere of mystery, change and foreboding, heavywith the sense of new beginnings andimpending endings.
The novel begins and ends withthe image of making a snow angel – a character is lying in the snow, moving arms and legs to make the shape of the angel’s wings and gown. It is late November when we meet 26-year-old Hedvig, whose parents have died. We follow her search for Billy, her sister’s dog, and encounter her friends and acquaintances as their paths cross during the next three months. Palm writes as if directinga roving camera, offering tantalisingsnapshots from the diverse daily livesof the characters and brief episodes ofconnections forming between them.There are many: Lovisa, Hedvig’s sisterthe artist; Gabriel, the sculptor andartist’s model; Anna, the writer; her oldschool friend, Rakel; Rafaele, the busdriver; Mikael, the kind policeman; Vanja,the Tarot card reader who wants to havea baby; her boyfriend Konny, the taxidriver, who does not; beautiful Aisha,the stand-up comedienne; Ishmael, herperceptive little brother; Axel, the ArtHistory graduate, tour guide, and timetraveller; Elsa and Henning, Hedvig’selderly neighbours and keepers of asecret; the blind old lady Astrid, whoknows every detail of the city she hasnever seen.
The suspense mounts as political undertones emerge; there are hints and suggestions – more than one character fears for the safety of the Prime Minister, Olof Palme. The past merges with the present; the fancy dress party that brings the characters together on New Year’s Eve evokes the masquerade ball at which King Gustav III was assassinated in 1792. History foretells the future, reality and dreams are indistinguishable – things are not what they seem.
Into her tale of mounting disquiet, the author skilfully weaves comments from her new life in a French village at the beginning of the 21st century and addresses the reader directly between each of the three sections of the book. Exploring what it means to live in voluntary self-exile, to leave the city one has always known and loved in order to fulfil a yearning to be somewhere else, she says: ‘I never know whether the ache I feel is the longing to go back, or the longing to get away, further away’. She describes with painful clarity the feeling of being foreign, the uncertainty about national identity and the frightening isolation and loss of self when one does not fully share the native language.
Palm cleverly portrays the selfish ambition of the 1980s, the need to get on, climb the economic ladder, plan for the future and also the impossibility for someone like Hedvig to thrive in this environment. Towards the end of the book, Hedvig asks Anna to write about it all: the strange winter, the city and the inter-connecting lives of its people. She asks Konny to take her in his taxi through the city so that she can look at the houses where her friends live; she wants to create a map of her life. Perhaps this will help her see a pattern and understand what has happened during the time of change.
There are many strands to this captivating, complex novel: Palm paints beautiful images of wintry Stockholm and arouses a palpable impression of the 1980s; and she probes with dexterity and compassion our ambiguous sense of belonging to a place and a time.