Reviewed by Janny Middelbeek-Oortgiesen in SBR 2017:2
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
Finna Sig, Agnes Lidbeck’s debut novel, has met great critical acclaim in Sweden. At the same time, debate has arisen among readers: some are fascinated by the protagonist, while others find her passiveness infuriating.
Anna lives in a beautiful house, is married to Jens and has two children: a boy and a girl. She attempts to live up to what she sees as the ideal image of a successful mother and attractive wife in a wealthy family. Yet she feels that the children do not really need her and that her husband no longer desires her, and when she is pregnant with her third, she has an abortion without telling Jens.
The years go by, the children grow older. Though Anna suspects that Jens is having an affair, she avoids confronting him and risking a divorce, as she does not want to disturb the beautiful picture of their family life or give up her comfortable lifestyle. Her income as a writer for a lifestyle magazine would be inadequate; moreover, she feels that people like them just don’t separate. However, she plays with the idea of becoming someone’s mistress, and when she meets the recently divorced, somewhat older writer Ivan, she engages in an affair without feeling strongly drawn to him. It’s more the idea of being the mistress/muse of an intellectual that attracts her.
But then Jens wants a divorce. The children have grown up now and Anna goes to live with Ivan. He tells her he is incurably ill and has known this for some time. Anna finds herself demoted to a nursing role, while Ivan’s adult daughter Siri is there for spiritual conversations with her father during his last months and to make sure that his intellectual legacy goes untouched.
In addition to the three sections that successively depict Anna’s life as a mother of young children, as Ivan’s mistress, and as his carer, the book contains short discursive fragments that reflect theoretically and almost scientifically on the role of women in aspects of life such as sex, attraction, infidelity, illness and death.
The story itself is told in a clear, accessible and almost analytical style, with the focus on Anna. I find it fascinating to see how the writer manages to create a layered protagonist and to make it clear that Anna’s passivity is actually an active choice. The title Finna sig - which means ‘to comply’, but also ‘to find oneself ’ – neatly captures these aspects of the protagonist.
Lidbeck is also very skilful in the way she accomplishes a shift in the reader’s feelings towards Anna: from some sort of sympathy, because of the way things can be when you have small children (yet another load of laundry, yet another round of cleaning up), through antipathy, because Anna is constantly thinking of the impression she makes on others – you just want her to stop acting like that – to sympathy, when Anna takes care of Ivan during his illness. Finally, you almost pity her when Siri gives her a hard time. Add to that the fact that Lidbeck mixes in some very interesting thoughts on kulturmannen – the intellectual alpha male – and you have an intriguing story. While I was reading this book, Jenny Offill’s acclaimed novel Dept. of Speculation came to my mind. What both authors have in common is their forceful, carefully measured concision. And like Offill’s book, Agnes Lidbeck’s novel lingers on in my mind – no mean accomplishment for a debutant.