Note: The American Girl, the predecessor of this novel, was WINNER of the August Prize, Sweden’s premier literary award.
“The folk song has many verses, the same thing happens in every one. Over and over again. Such a different way of looking at time…a repetition in time and space…But with the folk song comes realism.”
The structure of the folk song, as author Monika Fagerholm describes it here, explains the overall structure of this novel, with many repetitions through time and space, through past and present, and through new generations and old. Points of view constantly change among the many characters as the chronology moves between 1967, 1989, 2004, and 2012 and back. Bits of information are provided about one character in one section at one moment in time, contradicted in another section, and denied completely in yet another. Different characters go to the same places at different times and perform the same actions, but the results may be different, depending on who is telling the story.
If this sounds complex, it is. Finnish author Monika Fagerholm challenges the very nature of story-telling in this novel, which has, at its heart, a series of dark mysteries which echo through more than one generation. The writing is self-conscious, resembling that of the modernist writers of the 1930s and 1940s, as the author tells every detail about every event (from one character’s point of view at one point in time), then retells the same event from another’s point of view. At other times, she also resembles writers of fantasy in her use of mysterious forces and in the nightmarish quality of some of the memories her characters reveal. A literary award-winner for every one of her novels, including The American Girl, the predecessor of this one, which won Sweden’s premier literary award in 2005, the author is widely recognized for her complex, challenging, and even mystifying style. Ultimately, she creates her own version of reality in this long, minor-keyed “folk song” of life in Hango (Hanko), Finland, though she may, occasionally, lose her reader in the swirl of memories and retold tales.
The story begins in 1967, on the southernmost tip of Finland, when Eddie de Wire, the American Girl, falls or is pushed from a cliff into the Bule Marsh, “the abode of suicide,” where a whirlpool sucks her so deep into the water that her body is not discovered for days. Her teenage boyfriend Bjorn commits suicide shortly afterward. Eddie de Wire, The American Girl, has also spent time with Bjorn’s much younger stepbrother Bengt, however, and Bengt’s story has not been told, nor have the stories been collected from the other children, some of them witnesses, who know aspects of Eddie de Wire’s story. By 2004 – 2006, when this novel opens, Ulla Backstrom, an artistically gifted young girl living in the wealthiest part of Hanko, is acting out stories about the American Girl on her private balcony, where she has been observed by local children. At the school for theatrical performance, she is working on Project Earth, a story inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and making music with her band, The Screaming Toys.
Johanna, a poorer child, also attends this school, working on Project Earth with Ulla and living at home with her Aunt Solveig, whose own daughter Irene has moved away. As the story moves back to 1967, when Solveig, her sister Rita, and her brother Bengt were teenage acquaintances of the American Girl, the author develops their characters, backgrounds, and interrelationships with each other and with their families. Living nearby at the same time are other characters who become important in the story: Tobias, who was an elementary school teacher and swimming coach at that time; Doris Flinkenberg, a sad little girl who has no home and who wants to live with the family of Solveig and her siblings; Maj-Gun Maalamaa, who sometimes calls herself “The Girl from Borneo,” the daughter of the Pastor; her brother Tom; Susette Packlen, an ingénue who falls for Tom; and Liz Maalamaa, the aunt of Maj-Gun. Liz was a huge movie fan in the 1940s and she acquired a mask of Ava Gardner, which her niece and nephew use as the Angel of Death to scare the other children.
Murders, suicides, death by accident, and disappearances dominate the various time frames, though some who die may have met completely different fates from what has been reported by a character – and may not, in fact, even be dead. As events are finally revisited by characters in 2012, the contemporary lives and deaths of many characters are revealed, though the reader’s reactions are colored by new insights gleaned from bits of information dropped in and out of time. At times, the reader may have no clue who various characters are and where they come from, only to discover later. Some characters – Johanna, in particular – disappear for long periods of time, only to resurface later.
Throughout, the atmosphere is dark and dreary, with few high points of happiness to leaven the mood, and the characters are so complex, and even contradictory, depending on who is describing them, that it is difficult to develop much empathy with them. The author ultimately uses the Epilogue to resolve the questions which still remain after more than four hundred pages, explaining the relationships, especially involving Bjorn, Bengt, and Eddie de Wire, the complexities of Solveig’s life in childhood, and her own role in the events of 1967, along with surprising new information about characters once thought peripheral to the action. The looseness of the thematic development, which might otherwise have given the reader some “hooks” on which to hang the many seemingly random episodes involving death and love, especially the adolescent love which permeates the novel, limits the reader’s ability to feel rewarded with new insights at the end of the novel. Ultimately, the closest I came to finding a statement of purpose came from the dead American Girl, Eddie de Wire, with a somewhat selfish assessment: “Inside each of us there is that eternal YOUNG that wants to glitter, be loved, BE LOVED mercilessly.” I was hoping for a broader, more universal conclusion.
Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://suomenkuvalehti.fi
Hanko, at the southern tip of Finland, is surrounded on three sides by water. http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com
At one point the author mentions that the towers from some of the large houses near the water become beacons for ships. This house from Hanko might have been one of them. http://www.allcountries.org
“The Baroness,” a friend of Tobias and others, lives in an elegant Glass House on the First Cape in Hanko, perhaps similar to this Hanko house: http://www.homedesignhome.com
The mask of Ava Gardner, which the Maalamaa children use as the Angel of Death to frighten other children, is by Justin Russo: http://www.coroflot.com