Albert Bonniers förlag, 2018.
Reviewed by Andy Turner in SBR 2018:2
Review Section: Fiction
Just how much is likely to have changed between two people who have had no contact with each other for twenty years? Why would one of them suddenly arrive on the other’s doorstep after such an absence anyway?
Jonas Brun’s latest novel spans a history that unites past and present, passions and intrigue, secrets and truth. His deceptively effortless and evocative prose entices us into an accelerating series of events, telling a disquieting and engrossing tale of psychological suspense along the way.
A couple of decades after their paths first crossed, the main characters Stewe and John come face to face on the threshold of Stewe’s isolated house somewhere deep in the Swedish woods. Their previous clandestine relationship is opened up there and then, and the embers of a secret they have shared about a catastrophic fire in the early 1990s are rekindled.
At that time, during an unusually oppressive, sweltering summer, a sixteen-year-old Stewe is holidaying with his family at their summer house by a river in the forests further north. He is keen to escape the tender gaze of his parents and jealously welcomes the spotlight landing on his visiting sister, Manda, soon to study law in Lund. This summer is a time of flux for Stewe – rather than staying en famille, brooding over his best friend Kim who spurned his fumbling advances back home in Uppsala, Stewe unmoors the family rowing boat and hides away in the reeds with his fantasies, masturbating with a pair of pants stolen from Kim’s laundry basket. Sailing out a little further on the current one day, Stewe espies a bronzed figure, John, on the jetty of his summer house on the other side of the river bank. It is not long before their relationship becomes sexual.
John tells Stewe he is twenty years old and has borrowed his uncle’s cabin for a few weeks, but the peeling paint work, a fusty smell, tap water that tastes of pipes and the general disrepair of the place start to cast a shadow of doubt. Nevertheless, Stewe habitually rows up river to see John or to ride pillion on his motorbike into the local small town to share what little life there is there. As the cloying summer starts to stagnate in the breathless air, our own sense of unease weighs heavy too, as we realise that both characters are in extremis to different extents, running from their pasts towards an uncertain future. Whatever is to become of this summertime fling looks likely to have repercussions in the longer term.
And it is precisely in the passages of live dialogue (without the conventions of direct speech) between Stewe and John, double-spaced among the historical narrative and some twenty years later, that the reverberations, tensions and suspense play out centre stage. There are bruising pauses, mutual point-scoring and power struggles, walk-in traps but also, fleetingly, some tender words. As Brun never assigns any utterance to either character, we are left to deduce who is saying what to whom. This gives a dramatic immediacy and reminds us the consequences of that summer are still not over, as it becomes clear that unfinished business remains between them.
The title, Ingen jämfört med dig (Nobody Compared To You), is based on Sinéad O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U, the track playing during their steamy first encounters. Perhaps, blackly, Brun’s choice of title makes the dedication of the song less vapid and more directly personal, hinting that only when the whole episode can be spoken of in the past tense will it be over with once and for all. Possibly.