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Mornitologen Johanna Thydell, Mornitologen (The Mother Watcher)

Alfabeta Bokförlag,  2016.

Reviewed by Margaret Dahlström in SBR 2017:1

Review Section: Fiction for Children and Young People

A missing or inadequate parent is a common theme in Young Adult literature. The issue is addressed in JohannaThydell’s previous novels, for which she has won several awards, including the August Prize in 2003 for I taket lyser stjärnorna (film adaptation title: Glowing Stars). In Mornitologen (The Mother Watcher), Thydell approaches the theme from a new angle: here the missing mother absented herself by choice, leaving her husband and two-year-old daughter and remaining out of contact for 15 years.

At 17, Moa has no memory of her mother.When her father gets a message that his ex-wife would now like to meet Moa, the girl at first dismisses the idea, feeling no connection to Hedvig, who has been completely estranged for so long. But Moa’s close friend Otto thinks she should give Hedvig a chance to explain why she left. Together Moa and Otto devise a cover story: rather than say she’d like to meet,Moa pretends to have a bird-watching assignment for school which she might just as well do at her mother’s forest home rather than in some other forest.

Mother and daughter do not exactly bond straight away. There is no conflict, but no real rapport either. Hedvig is elusive and at times evasive, and Moa is hesitant to ask direct questions. Instead she snoops – looking through the house for clues when Hedvig is out, reading her diary, asking neighbours about her. When she is supposedly bird-watching, Moa instead trains her binoculars on the house and tries to learn more about Hedvig that way. She makes notes, referring to Hedvig by the code-name ‘cuckoo’ – the bird that leaves its young to be raised by others.

Only near the end of the visit do Moa and Hedvig discuss the elephant in the room – why Hedvig left, and why she made no contact for fifteen years. After days tiptoeing around the topic, the conversation comes almost as an anti- climax: Hedvig had a compelling reason to leave, but her account seems almost casual and superficial for something so life-changing. Even allowing for the tentative relationship between Moa and Hedvig, the reader might be inclined to feel that a matter of such weight would provide a more substantial and poignant scene and dialogue.

Hedvig is inevitably rather a sketchy figure. The narrative perspective is Moa’s, and the reader engages with her from the very beginning, long before the encounter with Hedvig. Moa is a strong and captivating character. Hedvig is reserved, somewhat guarded, and the reader’s limited empathy with her rather diminishes her story when she eventually tells it. On the other hand, this is a sensitive area bordering on a taboo – a mother who voluntarily left her child, albeit with what still seems to her to have been good reason.

Thydell evokes characters and settings vividly through Moa as narrator, and the situation is intriguing from the very beginning. One slight drawback is the use of footnotes, a technique which feels out of place and unnecessary. For example, at times Moa responds to questions or comments in ways required by convention, and a footnote points out that she means the opposite. It seems superfluous: Moa’s attitude is always clear to the reader. But this is a minor criticism. Overall the narrative is powerful and its characters engaging. Most significantly, it succeeds in addressing uncomfortable material in a way that is both compelling and sympathetic.

Other reviews by Margaret Dahlström

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