"Hidden in the forest of Sweden, a country church gleams in the sun. The First World War rages on the continent. Anna, in the front pew, refuses to accept the age-old beliefs the village hands her. Sixty years later, she gives refuge to a young niece, whose marriage is falling apart. Fredrik, Anna's lover, is long since dead. She still blames him for the death of their child, yet she misses his scent that would linger on her skin, like the moon that shone on the snow and colored it blue. Every day she visits the child’s grave, an old woman in a beret and tweed jacket. Time after time her thoughts return to the past, when she had to go on living, even though all seemed lost."
Within just a few short pages, I was drawn fully into this world. Birgitta Hjalmarson writes evocatively of what to me is a foreign land: Sweden. I settled back, immersed in rich detail of unfamiliar landscapes, and a world where life was very different. I said to myself, 'This is a proper story'. Rich description, focus on tiny details, and pithy summations of the characters make it hard for the reader to believe that this is not actually a memoir, so totally does the author inhabit the world of which she writes. The switching from past to present to more recent past is done skilfully and at no time was I confused about where we were on the timeline.
In the Swedish village of Hamm, they do things very differently and Anna, always one to think and question, begins to challenge these 'old' ways. I had to break off from reading this book when I was about fifty pages in, and the characters and setting 'stayed' with me until I could pick the book up again.
By now, there were hints of the tragedy that was to unfold. And I ran into a bit of a problem. I was on the lookout. What did Fredrik do which was so terrible? Was the dead woman something to do with him? We are led to believe so. And this is where the rich detail and the huge cast of characters began to get a bit 'sickly'. I'd gorged on the sumptuous descriptive detail and now I wanted the story to settle down, yet still the camera was set to macro, showing everything in close up, and more and more people were introduced. I couldn't ignore any of them, because I kept feeling that somewhere among them lay the clues to the tragic events which the reader knows will happen. The presaging of doom was distracting. When the truth is finally revealed, it was not what I'd been expecting. No spoilers here, but I'd have preferred to have had less signposting early on. That way I could have read and enjoyed the book, noting all the description, getting to know the vast array of characters and still have been surprised by the denouement.
That said, I would re-read this book. Knowing how things turn out would not spoil a second reading, and I'd go back and reacquaint myself with all the people from Hamm, and beyond, who populate this story. If you want a book which will take you to another time and place, this is one I'd recommend.
© Annie Whitehead
(The version reviewed was a mobi file and there was a slight formatting issue when some personal letters were indented, and two typos may have been mistranslations: ‘stories’ instead of ‘storeys’ and ‘peaked’ instead of ‘piqued’.)
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