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Ylva Eggehorn, Liljekonvaljekungen (The Lily-of-the-Valley King)

Bonniers,  2000. ISBN: 9100570257

Reviewed by Anna-Lisa Murrell in SBR 2002:1

‘Child of the Sea’
it lay there in the sand one day,
by waves and foam
and by wind.
I picked it up
and felt its heavy warmth
like a child
sleeping in the safety of its mother’s arms.
Then a cloud passed over the sun:
the foam of the waves froze;
a voice rose in anger:
who has stolen the child of the sea?

I dropped the pebble
as if it had burnt me with its solar warmth
and raced away.

Most classic memoirs of happy childhood days take us into an enclosed world, and enchanted garden where few discordant elements threaten the harmony. Ylva Eggehorn’s Kvarteret Radiomottagaren (1994) belongs in that category, and Liljekonvaljekungen is a continuation of this earlier work, but it is much more than a memoir. It is a montage of Stockholm suburbia in the late fifties and early sixties, set in Älvsjö, a garden city at the time of the homeownership movement in Sweden. This is a period of prosperity and expansion. For 300 kronor and the sweat of his own brow, a man had the right to lease a plot of land for sixty years and build his own house, while if he had a family of three children under the age of 16, the plot was leased to him rent-free.

This new work is a portrayal of suburbia at its best, an attempt to catch a chunk of living time and connect it to the past. This is effected in the introductory chapter and concluded in one of the later chapters. We are presented with a collection of stories within stories, the author’s own fantasy games and growing awareness. “To be a child you daren’t be stupid. Being a child is hard work, demanding your all,” says Ylva, an exceptionally gifted child with a nous which far outstripped her years. We follow her through her growing awareness of her surroundings, getting to grips with life through games, embracing tragedy through play. We witness her boredom with school and her curiosity which involves her in detective work and discoveries.

The story that is the most tragic and contrasting in its starkness is the one about Anna Singer, the woman in black, a refugee from the concentration camps who ended up in a Swedish psychiatric hospital. Hers is not a story with a happy ending, but it is one of love and sorrow, a story which is deeply touching, and within which we find another cameo portrait, one of Descartes ending his life in icy Sweden.

Eggehom also presents us with her first attempts at writing poetry. When she was 11 she wrote her first important poem (see above), one which was going to bring her fame and a television appearance with two well-known Swedish poets. Bo Setterlind and Johannes Edfelt. Before she appeared before them, the poem was read to them and they had to say if they thought the poem was written by anyone well-known, and if it had any literary merit. They had difficulty in deciding, but in the end they agreed it had certain qualities’ — especially if it had been written fifty years earlier! Another comical and lively chapter deals with her trip to Finland’s skerries while reading and living Gone With the Wind.

Essentially, Liljekonvaljekungen is about the author’s own development, her growing up, deepening her understanding, opening herself up to life and time, expanding her awareness. And the language she uses to tell it is a true delight — lively, rich and playful — just like her poetry.

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