Reviewed by Deborah Bragan-Turner in SBR 2015:1
Review Section: Fiction
Sofia Nordin is best known as a writer of children’s and young adult books and has twice been nominated for the prestigious August Prize. Atoms is her third adult novel, and this disconcerting tale combines the clear linguistic style and subtle tone of her previous fiction. The narrator is Alma, a research scientist who works on the laboratory analysis of water and sediment. We learn in the first chapter that she has an understanding of environmental chemistry, mathematics and meteorology – but when it comes to people… Nordin creates an unsettling psychological drama, into which she weaves striking references to the scientific world in which Alma works. The themes of loneliness and isolation recur as human relationships are compared to the behaviour of atoms and the discrete units that make up matter.
As the story unfolds we gradually discover the reasons behind Alma’s lonely situation. The narrative switches between the present, where we see her life as a single working woman, her habit of picking up men in bars, and her inability to trust others, and the past, which begins when Alma is five and meets Cedrik, another five-year-old, who moves into the yellow house next door.
Alma and Cedrik quickly become firm friends and they share an apparently idyllic childhood, exploring the woods and lake and dreaming about travelling together across the oceans to explore far-off lands. As the years pass Alma begins to question her friendship with Cedrik and wonder whether it might in fact be love. How do you know if you’re in love? But life changes when they reach the age of eleven and a newcome rarrives for the summer holidays: Cilla, who instantly becomes Cedrik’s friend, making Alma feel for the first time she is an outsider. She is relieved when Cilla leaves for home after the holidays and normality is resumed, but horrified when she returns the following summer.
What follows is an expression ofAlma’s growing hatred of Cilla and her increasing awareness that she herself is separate, and distant, from the other two. She spies on Cilla and is consumed with plans to harm her, secretly recording her observations in a notebook, which Cedrik will one day discover – making Alma believe the bond between them is unbreakable. The mood gradually changes and, as the reader begins to suspect sinister undertones to Alma’s obsession with her rival, a sense of foreboding develops, until tragedy drives young Cedrik and Alma apart.
Glimpses of the present are threaded through the story of Alma’s childhood, revealing a bizarre episode that takes place seventeen years later, when Alma unexpectedly meets Cedrik in a bar. Alma turns what might have been a happy reunion into a disturbing and nightmarish sequence. As she contemplates what it was that existed between them as children, she ponders on the imprecise, unscientific and intangible nature of friendship, comparing it to atomic theory, to the great, dark emptiness of atoms, in which electrons and protons will never come together, however hard they try.
Nordin is renowned for her ability to convey children’s thoughts, from their point of view, with sensitivity and eloquence. In this book the voice of the child Alma is intertwined with the voice of Alma the adult; and Nordin succeeds in sustaining the reader’s sympathy for her, despite the alarming directions her thoughts and actions take, in a tale that grips the reader to the end.