Wahlström & Widstrand, 2013.
Reviewed by Kevin Halliwell in SBR 2013:2
Review Section: Fiction: The Past
Nymfens Tid is Susanne Axmacher’s second novel, her first – Näckrosbarnen (Water Lily Children) – having been published to critical acclaim in 2009. The action in Nymfens Tid unfolds in Stockholm and Helsinki over a period of just a few months in 1939. The nymph of the title refers to the immature form of the locust, in an allusion to the season of destruction that will soon sweep across and engulf the European continent, devouring all in its path. Although the locust nymph is still at the development stage, it already resembles the adult form. Similarly, the novel’s fledgling protagonist, the nineteen year old Millie Bachmann, is also preparing to shed her adolescent skin, spread her wings and embark upon adulthood. Her father, Harald Bachmann, is an academic, an expert on locusts, which provides Axmacher with a neat linking device that enables her to interweave individual fate and global events in a captivating story of love, betrayal and espionage in the run-up to the war. The preface to Part 1 of the novel – Swarming – is revealing in this respect, taken as it is from Harald Bachmann’s description of locust behaviour in his (fictitious) book of Travel Stories, which Axmacher tells us was ‘published’ in 1933. This was, of course, the year Hitler was appointed Chancellor, which makes the locust / pre-war allegory clear from the outset: ‘... these insects ... whip each other up into a frenzy that is not unlike that of an angry mob, which causes them to migrate over such long distances and destroy the lives of so many people.’
The dust jacket gives a foretaste of the period atmosphere that Axmacher will so skilfully evoke in the novel. In a stylish black and white, contemporary photo by renowned Swedish photographer KW Gullers, a young woman wearing a black beret leans forward over a coffee table while a slick-haired, besuited young man lights her cigarette. This neatly conjures up a sepia-coloured, pre-war Stockholm of smoke-filled bars, where a claustrophobic sense of anticipation also hangs in the air; a sense that is shared by Millie as she endeavours to escape from the limiting claustrophobia of her bourgeois home. The photo could be a still from a 1930s Swedish film in which we will see Millie, in her quest for urban sophistication, drinking Pernod at Stockholm’s legendary Tennstopet while her new friends and acquaintances discuss the increasingly tense international situation. On a personal level, relations are also tense as it seems everyone suspects each other of betrayal or of being a spy or a Communist.
Millie, to whom none of these applies, dreams of embarking on a freer, more exciting way of life than that afforded by her stuffy background, as personified by her deeply conservative and controlling Italian mother, Giuseppa. A female perspective is a constant theme here, as the young, inexperienced Millie takes refuge from her stifling existence in her romantic obsession with Carl Becker, a journalist a few years older than her, who appears to return at least some of her affection. But Millie’s taste of freedom is to be short-lived; Carl soon tires of her and she finds herself alone and expecting his child. Her predictably furious parents ship her off to stay with her grandparents in the country, where she is told she must hide in secret until the child is born and then give it up. But, perhaps heralding an embryonic feminist struggle, the hopelessly romantic Millie turns out to be stronger than she had thought as she eventually resolves to carve out an independent space for herself.
Axmacher’s characters are very carefully and subtly drawn. She endows them with conflicting emotions, enabling them to emerge as real, complicated people whose words and actions are often at odds with their own hidden agendas. And it is a rare author that allows so many of her protagonists to remain frankly unlikeable. Millie, for example, sometimes comes across as spoilt and sullen, her confidante and sometime rival, Marietta, is often a manipulating schemer, while Carl – oddly enough for the fickle heartbreaker of the piece – remains somewhat pale and two-dimensional in comparison. In contrast, Ivar, a shy, unassuming young man who works as an accountant at the newspaper where Carl is a journalist, surprises himself – and the reader – when he takes the bold step of turning informant for the Secret Service, albeit, once again, with a hidden personal agenda. Ivar’s machinations are crucial to the plot, as Carl, Millie and Marietta are drawn deep into the heart of a frenzied manhunt for enemies of the State.
But it is not just Axmacher’s undoubted powers of characterisation that make Nymfens Tid such a compelling read; her description of these troubled individuals chimes perfectly with her evocation of a shadowy, treacherous epoch, when Europe stood on the brink of war and a dark cloud of fear and intrigue – both personal and political – hung over the continent like an impending plague of locusts.