Reviewed by Deborah Bragan-Turner in SBR 2015:2
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
Reviewed jointly with Sörja för de sina and Liv till varje pris
Kristina Sandberg’s monumental trilogy about Maj Berglund, a housewife from the small town of Örnsköldsvik in Västernorrland, on the coast of the Gulf of Bothnia, is a tour de force. In a style that is both spare and intensely personal, the author tells the unseen, unspoken story of daily life for millions of women from the ’30s to the early ’70s – giving birth, caring for their families, and surviving at any cost. Sandberg’s language is unforgiving and entirely unsentimental. Maj’s innermost thoughts give voice to the anxiety, bitterness and sorrow that threaten to engulf her, feelings that she would be ashamed to speak aloud.
We meet Maj first in 1938, working in a café, in love with someone from her home village whose feelings for her are questionable. Rejected by him and desperate to belong in her new life, she has a liaison with Tomas, an older, divorced man she hardly knows, and falls pregnant. As the first year of their subsequent marriage unfolds, Maj tries to come to terms with her sense of loss and the prospect of her life henceforth: ‘Why does no one want to know about me? Why does no one ask a single question about who I am?’ In the second novel, which begins in 1940, Maj’s destiny develops against the backdrop of society’s progress during the ’40s and ’50s and the advance of the Swedish welfare state.The family has moved into a new apartment, but Tomas’s battle with alcoholism and his fragile mental state dominate her life. Maj carries on in a relentless pursuit of cooking and cleaning, desperately trying to deal with the fear her husband’s condition brings. ‘But she can’t keep an eye on him all the time. Daily life has to carry on, shopping, washing, cooking.’ And as her sense of detachment from her children, Anita and Lasse, increases, she recalls her mother’s tight-lipped forbearance and she begins to question maternal love.
It is 1953 and Maj is thirty-five at the start of the last novel, which will chart her life into the tumultuous ’60s and beyond. Maj still has no concern for the changing world around her, no interest in politics or the economy, only in how to manage her home and household budget. But the needs of home and family are changing in a bewildering way too, and as Tomas loses his job and financial hardship looms, her relationship with Anita deteriorates. Indeed, the ambiguity and complexity of the mother-daughter bond is a recurrent theme throughout the trilogy. Maj has always doubted her own mother’s love: ‘If I come home and do everything for Christmas – will you forgive me then?’ Later, when Anita suffers a nervous breakdown, Maj wonders: ‘Anita, who’s had everything a child could wish for. Except a mother’s love?’ And it is in fact Maj’s granddaughter and Anita’s daughter who is the narrator, looking back at Maj’s life from a very different perspective.
The universality of the tale Sandberg tells, in which the importance of domestic routine is paramount, together with the almost confessional nature of her writing, can be seen in the work of the three women writers whose words appear in Sandberg’s epigraphs.The first book begins with a quotation from the short story ‘Girl’, by American-Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid.The second novel has one from French-Algerian author Nina Bouraoui’s inner monologue, Mes mauvaises pensées, and the third volume begins with a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s final diary entry: ‘Occupation is essential. And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and must cook dinner.’ The reviewer was also struck, especially in the meticulous attention to the details of everyday life, by similarities with the much earlier Alberta trilogy by Cora Sandel. But while Alberta fights to escape her lot, Maj battles to keep hers, to be accepted and to fit in with and be appreciated by those around her.