Reviewed by Martin Murrell in SBR 2015:2
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
‘Bonsai cats’, according to a spoof website, are cats which were stuffed into glass vessels as kittens to restrict their physical growth and so become moulded into an unnatural shape at the will of their owners. Human children may, in a comparable way, be brought up forcibly conditioned, in the social bottles adults squeeze them into.
The bonsai cat is a metaphor for the inescapable stunting effects of normalising cultural forces. To escape what they see as such repressive, deforming constraints, imposed not only through social norms but also through excessive peer bullying, Maria leaves her home with her fourteen- year-old son Silas, a ramshackle caravan in tow,ending up in a colony in ‘Åland’, while Jon sets off with his two daughters from the family home for similar reasons. Both parents are in search of a more natural way of life, a space where the air and attitudes are free, fresh and different. Inevitably they meet, by chance or fate, in a lay-by. They both know they are committing an offence, will be seen as kidnappers and stand a good chance of eventually being arrested. Sadly, neither ends up finding the Shangri-la they seek.
The action is played out as a drama over a number of days in a police interrogation room with three actors, two protagonists and a prompt, with numerous flashbacks as the two reveal their experiences and attempt to analyse their reactions.The text is a novelised film script, a complex story in dialogue, told in fourteen chapter-scenes, in language pulsing with illuminating images that capture and propel.
The book opens at the point where the police have apprehended the so-called kidnappers and a criminal psychologist starts to question them. They are prompted to tell their stories and to explain their actions in the hope that their true motives, ones that may be understood by both their spouses and the authorities, will come to light.
Ironically, through their children the runaways finally come to understand that authority and norms are what define a society. The alternative to arriving at such norms through democratic means is Kafkaesque. The narrative ends with Maria reporting what Silas told her before the police arrive: how human beings can survive an alien invasion.The aliens would be gigantic cockroaches. He would roll on his back and behave like an overturned insect. As a result the aliens would spare him and all humankind. On that note, the story – if not the human race – comes to an end. What will ultimately happen to the children and their parents after their detailed accounts is left to the reader’s imagination.
The characters’ memory for detail and the fluency with which they narrate their stories are extraordinary, but experienced readers will have no difficulty in suspending disbelief. For me the book was unputdownable. However, some questions of detail do niggle. For example, it is not clear why the author places the colony of social drop-outs and their autistic children in ‘Åland’.The reason for my inverted commas is that it is clearly not Fasta Åland, the principal island of the archipelago, where 90 per cent of Ålanders reside. If Johansson had in mind one of the thousands of other named or unnamed islands, he should have said so or used a fictitious name, but he has Maria say, ‘Åland is only a little island.’ Additionally, some readers might be put off by the repeated lavatorial images, which accumulate with the quasi-symbolic significance of an obsession.
Despite being drawn into the action from the outset, readers need to keep a certain distance while sitting back and enjoying the unravelling story. It should not be taken too seriously but be read as fantasy entertainment. Unlike some Swedish critics, I found the narrative has its lighter, even amusing moments. The language is colourful and rich, spiced with colloquialisms and images, and I hope the inevitable film translation will acknowledge and preserve much of this. I await it with anticipation.