Reviewed by Joanna Flower in SBR 2018:1
Review Section: Fiction
Välkommen till Amerika is a modern-day Bildungsroman, at once an 11-year-old girl’s revolt against adolescence and a study in depression, written in prose so taut that the emotional and intellectual impact of the story lingers on long after the final page is turned.
Ellen lives with her mother and older brother. Although they occupy the same space, they live closed off from one other, each inhabiting their own world, but not connecting in any meaningful way. Her brother barricades himself into his bedroom and urinates in bottles there. Her mother is an actress with a never-ending supply of lovers who breezily insists that they are a ‘light family’. But Ellen is dark.
Ellen stopped talking a while ago. She doesn’t even know why, though it might have something to do with the fact that she considers talking and ‘growing’ to be incompatible. Or because she is scared by the power of her words. It was her words that killed her violent, depressed, alcoholic father, after she had prayed to God again and again for his death. Then again, it could be something in her genes. She has her father’s darkness within her.
Ellen realises that she is no longer a child, but neither is she a woman. She cannot function without her mother, yet she also rejects all that her mother is. But this ambivalence is a projection of Ellen’s own struggle against her inevitable metamorphosis into a woman. She fears the changes in her body, and she fears her own passivity and lack of will and desire, struggling to identify her personality within herself, as she does not yet know who she is.
What Ellen does know is that she has grown up with a father who physically abused her mother, and that she – Ellen – fears violence more than anything else. She also realises that the aggressive male dominance of her childhood threatens to continue into adolescence and adulthood, with her brother’s menaces of physical force. He is becoming a man, and she sees herself, with all her sensitivities and self-doubt, as being the weak one, the victim of this aggressive, patriarchal environment. And Ellen does not want to be weak.
For Ellen, then, power is all-important. It is strength. Her silence is her strength, her means of control, her revolt. The novel resonates with an ominous undercurrent of violence and the desperate assertion of will. Ellen is engaged in a constant battle with every person she meets, a battle to determine who is the strongest: ‘Always the same question when it comes to people. Whose will was stronger?’
Heritage, inheritance, genes. There is no escape from our conditioning. With a nod, perhaps, to her own literary heritage, Linda Boström Knausgård deftly employs the Strindbergian preoccupation with psychological warfare and the Nietzschean desire to be the ‘stronger’. There are striking parallels with Strindberg’s one-act play, Den starkare (The Stronger), 1888/1889, in which one actress remains mute in an emotional power struggle with another. This contemporary rendering of those concepts skilfully shines a light on the fragmentation of today’s society, the lack of sense of community even within a single, small family, and their inability to connect deeply with others. All this is masterfully condensed into fewer than 100 pages in the voice of a confused yet eloquent girl, in what proves to be an intense reading experience.
Ellen’s solution is to withdraw from the world. Yet by small and incremental steps, we see a progression as she starts to open up and act – the frantic cleaning of her bedroom indicates a cleansing progress – and she tastes her first cigarette and adopts the same position on the balcony as her mother when she smokes. She starts to think of her childhood with nostalgia, and there is the sense in the end that Ellen is learning to accept her destiny to become a woman, and, gradually, to give up the revolt. She cannot escape her heritage.
The name ‘Ellen’ means ‘light’. Perhaps they can become a ‘light family’ after all.