Albert Bonniers förlag, 2017.
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2018:1
Review Section: Fiction
The subject of Ellen Mattson’s tenth novel is Commander Henrik Dankwardt, who defended Marstrand fortress against besieging Danes in 1719. It has long puzzled historians that Danckwardt surrendered when he still apparently had the men, supplies and firepower to hold out, and this is the puzzle that Mattson explores, crafting into being a complex, flesh-and-blood character. This soldier of twenty years’ standing, a man of action, is now consigned to the task of mere waiting. He loathes the rocky, treeless scenery of the Swedish west coast and dreams of escape to green forests. In his charge are not only his troops but also a dungeon full of prisoners and a collection of officers’ families, including his own young daughters and his sister. He is haunted by the death of his wife shortly before his posting to Marstrand, and even more so by the death of the infant they brought with them. He seeks solace in the uncomplicated companionship of his dog and the simple everyday ministrations of a young serving maid.
Danckwardt repeatedly asks for reinforcements but realises none will ever be sent. His opposite number, the cocky young Danish commander Tordenskiold, is a man about whom many heroic myths have grown up. His informers and spies are everywhere; tricks are played and rumours sown to undermine morale in the fortress. Danckwardt, meanwhile, is increasingly haunted by visions of ‘his’ dead, not only his wife and baby but also his men on the battlefield and, in particular, a hanged prisoner, barely more than a boy. The idea of causing any more deaths becomes anathema to him. As the summer drags on and the wells run dry, he sits in his tower with the seabirds wheeling above and is overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu. He agrees to surrender but is left numbed, and when taken to the tavern by Tordenskiold, the only inebriation he feels is the relief of no longer having to make decisions. As his men leave the island, the rain finally starts to fall, a half-hearted drizzle. There is rueful awareness, expressed by both Danckwardt and his Danish foe, that for their rulers, war is a never-ending game. Tordenskiold’s men will soon be going crazy, trapped on the island in their turn, and the Swedes will retake the fortress eventually.
For Danckwardt, King Charles XII is a brother-in-arms, a revered commander, who leads by example and dies on the battlefield. Is it the loss of the king that somehow accelerates Danckwardt’s journey from unthinking obedience to the realm of emotions and dreams? The king bankrupted his nation and used his subjects as cannon fodder. Danckwardt opted for a less swashbuckling path, and his own era judged him harshly, but to us he seems the greater hero. The same king featured in Mattson’s 2001 novel Snö (Snow). For the protagonist of that story, a village apothecary, he is first a distant symbol, then an urgent physical reality, a dead body to be embalmed.
For me, Mattson is at her most compelling when she chooses the almost monochrome palette of a bleak west coast setting and observes the unities of time and space. The winter-bound coastal community where Snow was set and the claustrophobic fortress in this novel both create narrative tension and a powerful sense of atmosphere. The colours may be black and white, but Mattson shows us in beautifully well-weighed language that life seldom is.