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Cilla Neumann, Dem oss skyldiga äro (Those Who Trespass Against Us)

Bonniers,  2002. ISBN: 9100580392

Reviewed by Linda Schenck in SBR 2003:1


Perhaps the real protagonists in this new novel by Cilla Naumann are characters who never speak: twin boys born in approximately the year 2000, somewhere in Latin America, to parents unknown. They were abandoned in traditional fashion, on a doorstep. Whether or not there was any intention underlying the choice of doorstep remains as unknown to the reader as the parenthood of the newborn twins. However, it is a choice which irrevocably alters the course of the lives of Maria Theresa, the woman who is one of the more active main characters in this story of parallel worlds – a disabled, lonely woman to whom it only occurs too late that she had any other choice than to turn these babies, perhaps the only ones she will ever have an opportunity to mother, over to the authorities. By various twists and turns of outrageous fortune, in the few days before she decides to lay claim to them as “intended” for her, the twins are adopted by a wealthy Swedish couple who already have two teenage biological children of their own, and who have no “need” of these children beyond the purely egotistical (an attempt to save their failing marriage) and the purely hypocritical/charitable (to offer “the good life” to two human beings who might otherwise grow up in poverty). The paperwork is done, the decision out of Maria Theresa’s hands. Most of the rest of the novel is a retrospective look at the preceding fifteen years, and at the earlier history of the Swedish family who return to Sweden at the end of the novel with their adopted twins. Fifteen years before, they had left Sweden to do development assistance work in Latin America. They live in the same geographical area as Maria Theresa and whoever is the mother of the twins. The mother in that family is in focus in the one parallel strand, Maria Theresa in the other. The Swedish mother, Katrin, and their two little girls have accom-panied her lawyer husband to this strange country, in which there is suddenly such a tangible gap between those who have and those who have not. In their large stone mansion, run by a housekeeper who soon also becomes very much a second mother to the girls, Katrin grows progressively more miserable with her wife-of-the-counsel-general-to-the-NGO role. After a year of watching her degenerate, the housekeeper, Carmen, helps her find a meaningful activity in her life, and she opens a church-associated counselling clinic to young women in need of gynaecological and family planning services. The novel evolves as we follow the lives of Maria Theresa and Katrin, and as the underlying ethical question, including “what is kindness?” and “who helps whom?” begin to burn. By the end, when Katrin and her now four-child family have returned to Sweden and attempted to reintegrate after fifteen years elsewhere, the nearly-adult daughters are on their way back to the country that has formed their own lives and worldviews, the twins are living in a monetarily wealthier but possibly emotionally more impoverished world that the one in which they were born, and the adults are floundering, each in their own way, and grappling with the issues they will have to face and resolve, each in their own way, in order to be able to go on. Issues that eat away at each of us, and that do not vanish simply because we have tasks to perform in our professional or parenting roles. In Cilla Naumann’s fifth novel a fabric of questions is woven where there are no given or ultimate answers, no simple explanations. It is a sweeping, moving narrative, and extremely thought-provoking. Cilla Naumann’s first novel, Vattenhjärta (Water Heart) was published in 1995 and received the Katapult prize. Her fourth and most recent novel Dom (Them) was published to great acclaim in Sweden and has been sold for translation into several languages.

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