Reviewed by Andy Turner in SBR 2019:1&2
Review Section: General Fiction
Norstedts, 2018. 273 pages
Rights: Norstedts, Linda AltrovBerg, firstname.lastname@example.org
Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz was born in Colombia and grew up in Norrköping, Sweden.
He is a writer, actor, director and musical artist.
Ortiz was playwright and director in residence in 2017 at the Swedish National Touring Theatre.
Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz’s official website (in Swedish): www.joelisabel.se
It is not often that an author successfully unleashes a riot of issues within a story which, far from turning the reader off, locks them into an uncomfortable embrace, steering them head-first into a volatile quest of trouble and turmoil. This is faultlessly accomplished by Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz in the debut novel Sången om en son.
Perhaps that success comes down to liking a character you sometimes also want to shake.The story is narrated by Angel, adopted from Colombia at four months old and placed in a household with a cruel and antagonistic father and a mother who dies a year or so after the child’s arrival. Leaving capricious, make-believe identities as an actor in Stockholm behind, Angel temporarily heads back to this provincial childhood home in Växjö, to finally break with the past and its memories.
The snowy pastoral landscape, softly enveloping a lifetime of self- loathing and doubt, contrasts at once with the gritty, urban landscape of Stockholm where the hedonisms of fly-by-night friendships, alcohol-fuelled sex and frequent, rough, anonymous pick-ups frame Angel’s personal search for true identity and belonging. A good lover to Orlando, Angel is outwardly confident and giving, but this is never reciprocated; Angel puts up with Orlando’s secretive comings and goings, foreign trips, emotional bullying and passive aggressions. Essential to Angel’s character is the enigma of sexuality and gender. Dressing androgynously in tights, with lacquered nails, represents a kick against the clothes for boys that Angel was forced to wear for grandmother’s funeral years ago. Angel’s own choice of personal pronoun is the Swedish gender-neutral one. A pronoun that does nothing to abate male interest. Angel refuses to be drawn into a binary identity either, using ‘sibling’ as a self-descriptor.
By the end of part one of the book, it is obvious that Angel’s voyage is bound for total self-destruction as the demons from a painful, unanswered past breach an aching, toxic present. Physical and mental self-harm manifest themselves in flows of substance abuse and sexual kicks.
But part two sees a welcome sea change in the odyssey. Angel walks away from Orlando and is able to re- evaluate two long-standing friendships and their significance. Along the way, Angel moves home and falls in love with the Swedish-born, tattooed paediatrician Mostafa. Potential obstacles, such as Mostafa’s marriage to Fereshte, who is mutually in love with Maya in Copenhagen, are navigated.
‘Heteronormative coupledom’ is not for them. The enigmatic reference in the title adds a warmth and depth to the moments of observational humour. What is the song, what does it represent and who is singing it? Who is the son exactly, who is the parent even? Possibilities are hinted at, if you spot them as the book progresses. A definitive answer is delivered at the end. But do not forget that the book’s dedication is to everyone who is adopted, as Ortiz states: ‘I will always be on your side.’
The book will resonate with anyone who has ever had an addiction problem or a toxic past, and will tug the heartstrings of those who have loved them. It is a challenging, grown- up read. The story of Angel’s journey will affect you; frankly, it is impossible to be unmoved by Angel’s plight. Any novel that makes you want to throw it at the wall in frustration at times, and shout out to the characters, is a work that does more than most. That is the mark of a powerful debut from a writer not afraid to shock, or confront.