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Gunilla Linn Persson, Vännen (The Friend)

Wahlström & Widstrand,  2003. ISBN: 9146183183

Reviewed by Marie Allen in SBR 2004:2

Gunilla Linn Persson has an affinity for the Swedish archipelago and its indigenous population. A huge influx of summer tourists and only a few permanent residents creates a vast distance between the two groups. The people who were born and bred and who have remained on these islands are quickly disappearing.
This story is set on Järnöran, an island said to lie “beyond the human limit”. Levels of iron on the island are so high that compasses are thrown off course. Edit Ingman has spent her entire life here, looking after her family, who one by one have died and left her on her own. Edit is old now, and her “life compass” has also become confused. She believes her family is still alive, soon to visit, return from the sea or even waiting upstairs. Daily chores become essential, but she cannot complete a task or remember whether or not it has already been done.
Ellinor, a young woman, with her husband and their multitude of children, have decided to live in their converted stable on the island for a year. Ellinor wants to write a book about children. But during the first autumnal storm, she pays a visit to Edit Ingman, and in spite of the old lady’s odd behaviour and inability to even remember her from one visit to the next, an unusual friendship develops. Ellinor tries to offer Edit some normality, with real food, warmth, people and conversation. But Edit always slips back into her own world.
“If you’re not quite right, do you really have to exist then?”
That is Edit’s constantly recurring question to Ellinor, who simply replies: “Everyone is needed.”
We follow the women on the island through the changing seasons, from stormy autumn and cold winter to spring and hot summer. The summer guests return to fill the quiet island with their children, lawn mowers and motor boats. For Ellinor, instead of the intended sabbatical to write, it becomes a year of learning about an entirely different life, a life that has been caught on this island as a result of family tragedies. Somehow, Ellinor adopts Edit’s way of looking at things, as well as the memories that Edit cannot hold on to anymore. For Edit, this is her twilight year, her last one on this island and earth.
This is a quiet book with acute insights into an old, lonely person’s mind, when everyone has gone and reality is no longer clear. Edit could easily be any one of us, but for all her confusion, she is an island and Ellinor her only rock.

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