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Ninni Holmqvist, Biroller (Supporting Roles)

Norstedts,  2002. ISBN: 9113010395

Reviewed by Martin Murrell in SBR 2004:2

The players in these twelve beautifully crafted short-story dramas may not all be principals in their own lives, but they are indispensable to the action and not mere second fiddles. The unnamed bisexual narrator of the second story, “The Weaker One”, has played the role of Kristin in Strindberg’s Miss Julie. She has attended many weekend courses in scriptwriting, where there was much discussion about supporting roles: how they shadow the principal characters, underscoring the things the protagonists say and do. Importantly, if they fail in this, they should be deleted from the script. She has learnt her lesson well: she soon cuts herself out of the script of her domineering lesbian partner’s life. In taking this decision, she displays strength of will that partially transforms her.
Lars-Olof, too, a battered husband who abandons his wife and three children, has come to his senses at a critical moment in his life. In “The Turning-Point” he drives off in the opposite direction to his usual one, and stops at the end of a cul-de-sac to think through the plans he has made for his immediate future.
Some characters, however, do not escape so easily. In the amusing “Veteran”, a younger sister wants to end an affair with her brother-in-law when she becomes pregnant by him; but he persuades her not to, because she is a better “lay” than her sister. In “The Angel”, angelic Camilla is seduced by a fellow-art-student, the psychopathic Liv, who accidentally takes Camilla’s life. Both of these are stories of domination, and both contain humour, irony and ambiguity in the dialogue and plot, in spite of the suspected and actual tragic outcomes.
Death and disaster occur, but some of the stories are pure tragicomedies and comedies. Indeed, there is richness and novelty in situation, plot and character – and symmetry in structure and language – that make the book very difficult to put down. The details are important, some becoming motifs or other kinds of structural devices. Throughout there is clarity and relevance in descriptions of nature, weather, clothes and even cars, which are integral and illuminating – while also providing a stylistic thread to link the diverse narratives. Well exploited, too, is the notion of the need for personal space, whether a twenty-minute rest on a cemetery bench or a complete break with the past. The settings and focal points also play indispensable roles, and linked to these is the wide range of contemporary themes, such as the treatment of disability and difference, dialects and fashion, strabismus, brain damage, the effects of thalidomide, senility and alcohol.
The contrast between reality and appearance and the irony arising out of this is used to great effect. The relationship between Linda and the migraineur Ulf in “Zigzag” is rather different from the mistaken perception of Linda’s sister. “You must stop letting him dominate you like that,” says Jill, a coldly calculating paragon of virtue, “it’s horrible to see.” Actually, Linda and Ulf had but a minute ago enjoyed a mutually satisfying “quickie”, probably one of the quickest in all fiction, in a situation of great narrative suspense.

Also by Ninni Holmqvist

  • Enhet (Unity). Reviewed by Martin Murrell in SBR 2007:1.

Other reviews by Martin Murrell

Other reviews in SBR 2004:2

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