Albert Bonniers förlag, 2017.
Reviewed by Deborah Bragan-Turner in SBR 2018:1
Review Section: Fiction
Anne Swärd’s readers have waited seven years for her fourth novel, and they are unlikely to be disappointed. Many of the familiar components are present: fear of love, family in crisis, betrayal, deceit and guilt, all combining in a rich web of mysteries and lies drawn together across three countries.
The novel begins in 1945 with a winter wedding on a remote island in the Stockholm archipelago between Sandrine, a 17-year-old refugee from war-torn Europe, and Ivan, a doctor twice her age whom she hardly knows. When a snowstorm descends on the wedding party, it is so cold the knife won’t cut through the wedding cake and the bubbles freeze in the champagne glasses. (Swärd’s words are immensely vivid; reading this section, you feel the chill in every bone and a premonition of their glacial marriage.) While the celebrations continue around her, Sandrine gives birth to a child that cannot possibly be Ivan’s. Where has this young woman come from, and why has she married into the austere, upper-class Ceder family, although disapproved of by her husband’s brothers, sisters-in-law and mother? The novel slowly reveals the secrets and the paralysing guilt that both Sandrine and Ivan bear.
The baby is given the name Vera, after Ivan’s missing sister, but, despite the title, this book is Sandrine’s story. As the narrative shifts back to her childhood in a French seaport, where she was brought up with her two sisters (she is the middle child, the ‘invisible’ one) by a grandmother who is a seamstress and a prostitute and a mother who joins the Resistance, we gradually begin to piece together her past. When her mother seeks refuge for herself and her daughters in the Polish village their absent father fled from in shame some years before, they find themselves in the very heart of the war. With Nazi troops drawing nearer, we sense the horror of what lies ahead. And when the war is finally behind her and fresh trials loom: ‘What is there to worry about when the worst has already happened? I have no fear left in me.’
The instinct to survive is a dominant theme. On the last occasion Sandrine sees her mother and sisters, she asks herself; ‘One of us has to survive, but why me?’ And at a different juncture she ponders on survival as a paradox of nature: ‘How can seaweed be so weightless, swaying under the immense pressure of water?’ The sea is a recurring motif, forming the backdrop to many of the novel’s key scenes. These are interesting illustrations of the importance of nature in Swärd’s writing, even though its presence may not necessarily be explicit. In an interview with Vi läser magazine (6, 2017) she has said: ‘It’s more a question of what feelings a landscape arouses in me. The moods I can use.’
Swedish reviewers have likened Swärd to great European writers, commenting on her epic style and powerful, compelling stories, in which love is an ever-present element. The title of the collective volume of her first three novels, Akta dig för kärleken (Beware of Love), echoes words spoken to Lo by her mother in Till sista andetaget (Breathless). In Vera Sandrine’s mother gives her daughter this advice: ‘You have to seek love where you can between disasters’. Yet in this novel the mother-daughter relationship appears in many ways to be the harshest Swärd has created. Sandrine’s total lack of feeling for her daughter or involvement in her life, her inability to touch or even look at her unloved child, is an aching void for the reader to negotiate. In the end, of course, something happens. But is it enough to release Sandrine from her silent passivity?