By Maeva Chargros
Any decent human being knows this very basic fact: extreme temperatures exist so you can read without feeling too bad for not doing what you were supposed to do. In my case, I put the “extreme temperature” boundaries around +25°C and -25°C. When the weather gets warmer or colder than these, my brain automatically switches to the “non-stop reading” mode. Therefore, this summer’s heatwave gave me the very pleasant opportunity to drift away from Central European topics, back to my earlier shores for a few days. Let me introduce you to three amazing Nordic writers!
FINLAND & ESTONIA: Norma, Sofi Oksanen.
It is hard to be concise and objective when mentioning this writer whose novel Purge (Puhdistus in Finnish, Puhastus in Estonian) literally changed my life forever – and for the better. Sofi Oksanen is a Finnish-Estonian writer who likes to draw humanly touching portraits of women and their – usually complicated – past, present, and future endeavours. In Norma, we meet a young woman whose mother just killed herself without giving any warning sign of such psychological despair before this fateful morning. She struggles to understand what happened during the last few days of her mother’s life and starts realising the story behind this violent death dates back to decades, even centuries ago – and involves four different continents.
This novel could be just another story among others, if it did not have a few features typical of both the author and Nordic writers (or society): the exploitation of women and their bodies, the enormous challenge being “different” represents in today’s world, the overwhelming importance of physical appearances and its disastrous consequences on humanity, the link that exists among all women of a family, and of course, how crucial it is to give a “second chance” to everyone who’s taken the wrong path in life. These themes are very similar to the ones addressed in Purge, though the stories differ radically in time, space, and characters. The main flaw of Norma as a novel is, at least from my point of view, the ending which seems slightly too easy and… unrealistic, somehow. I will not explain more (spoilers could discourage interested readers), though. You will have to read it to understand that mystery. Overall, I really enjoyed reading Norma, and I can only recommend anyone and everyone to read Sofi Oksanen’s novels at least once in their life. While Norma’s main location is contemporary Helsinki and the Finnish countryside, Purge will have you wander in troubled times when the “Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic” was still a thing, a very dark and tragic one.
SWEDEN: Until Thy Wrath be Past, Åsa Larsson.
I tried, I promise I tried not to add a Nordic noir novel to this reading list! (Don’t look at my fingers, obviously I could not write this sentence without crossing them…) Let’s just put it this way: I’m far too weak to resist Nordic noir, even worse, I’m part of the generation of Nordic studies alumni who (successfully) tried to prove to the academic world that this literature was worth a few seminars, research grants and theses.
Åsa Larsson was raised in Kiruna, a city beyond the Arctic Circle that’s going to move a few kilometres away to avoid some geologic problems related to the mine’s expansion, this enigmatic labyrinth under the inhabitants’ feet that’s making it survive economically. The entire process of creating a new city 5km away should be completed by 2022 (it was initiated in 2004). However, the overall project will take decades. The region of Kiruna and Umeå, the Norrbotten County, saw many talented Nordic noir authors gain fame.
The original title (in Swedish, I mean) of her novel is: Till dess din vrede upphör. As usual with Nordic noir novels, the crime story is not really the most important – nor the most interesting – part of the book. Through this novel you will (re)discover the challenging past of Sweden and Finland, two countries that benefitted from trade agreements with the Third Reich during World War II – using neutrality as a bait. Of course, the state was not the only one actively involved in such trade. How do people live with such past? What should one do when the younger generation decides to dig deeper, perhaps too deep, into shameful and unpleasant stories that should remain buried? How far are you ready to go to protect your family, your social status? Rebecka Martinsson, the main character and hero of Åsa Larsson’s novels, has to find the answers to these questions in this book.
In all honesty, it was not the best Nordic noir I’ve read so far, but I became very demanding after reading so many of them my bookshelves couldn’t handle it anymore. Therefore, I’d still recommend it, since it gives an opportunity to the reader to discover this rather wild and little-known region of mountains, forests and lakes – the most beautiful part of the world, if you ask me.
ICELAND: Upphækkuð jörð, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir.
English title: Raised Earth. I am putting the original title for two reasons: first, Icelandic is such a special language to translate, one needs to have the original version to fully grasp the words used by an Icelandic author (and their purpose); second, in this particular case, the author’s writing style is so unique and poetic that only the original version of the title makes sense.
Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir was my main Nordic literature discovery during my Bachelor’s. Afleggjarinn, or The Greenhouse in English (Rosa Candida in French), was a mandatory reading we had to review for our Icelandic literature course. After just three lines, I fell in love with her writing style and could not stop reading it. The way some people criticise her style and some others love it makes perfect sense: just like her native country Iceland’s effect on tourists discovering it for the first time, you either love her novels or hate them (and you either love or hate Iceland). There is no “in-between”. In Raised Earth, you follow a young teenager whose mother is busy observing birds in Africa and whose father made “two crucial life decisions in a very short time, you have to be brave to do such a thing” (read the book if you want to understand this enigma, and the humour behind it). She, the 14-years-old girl, is busy interacting with God from a black beach or from “her” rhubarb field (hence the French title, Le rouge vif de la rhubarbe).
Honestly, the entire novel does not make much sense. Do not expect a story with a beginning and an ending, nor with complicated plots with suspense and unexpected events. The beauty of Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s writing style is the main story line: she is truly a poet, with this indescribable and unparalleled “Icelandic touch”. A rightful heir of Laxness. In bonus, you will discover Icelandic life through all four (or rather two, maybe three?) seasons: sun, snowstorms, night, and fishing.
I hope these short reviews got you interested in Nordic literature: often limited to Strindberg, Astrid Lindgren or Jo Nesbø (excellent authors, all three of them), the other treasures are sometimes left in the shadows, unfortunately.