Albert Bonniers förlag, 2014.
Reviewed by Kevin Halliwell in SBR 2015:1
Review Section: Fiction
Beckomberga – Ode till min familj has earned Sara Stridsberg her fourth nomination for the August Prize, thus cementing her status as one of Sweden’s most important contemporary writers.
Beckomberga Hospital was once Europe’s largest mental institution. The very name has a particular resonance for Swedes, and this perhaps explains the literary agency’s decision to remove the place name from the English working title and replace it with ‘The Gravity of Love’ – possibly also in an attempt to encapsulate a key idea in a punchy, crowd-pleasing one-liner. The novel links in with many of Stridsberg’s earlier themes and characters. A young female protagonist, Jackie – headstrong yet vulnerable – is not unlike Lo, the Lolita-like figure in Darling River. Jackie’s depressed father Jimmie (known to his friends, in a further nod to thematic continuity, as Jimmie Darling) is admitted to Beckomberga following a suicide attempt, and Jackie finds herself spending more and more of her time there, partly in an attempt to save her father from himself. When her mother, Lone, leaves for the Black Sea, the psychiatric hospital becomes something of a home from home for Jackie. Although surrounded by psychiatric patients, the young Jackie does not seem to be aware of any clear dividing line between madness and normality. This would appear to be one of Stridsberg’s aims: to bridge the gap between ‘the healthy’ and ‘the sick’, between the faceless institutions erected by society and individual families. In one of the novel’s many paradoxes, Jackie is drawn to a place that ‘normal people’ would fear and wish to avoid at all costs. She skips school and more or less grows up with Beckomberga’s inmates; people who have had everything taken away from them yet who seem healthier and happier there than anywhere else.
Stridsberg implies that madness, health and happiness all coexist both within and without the asylum walls, but society and its institutions need to cling to the established boundaries. As Jimmie’s doctor, Edvard Winterson, puts it: ‘We’re all mad, Jim’, he says. ‘I’m mad. You’re mad.’ ‘And how do you know that I’m mad?’ asks Jim. Edvard’s smile lights up before him like a bulb in a darkened room. ‘You must be. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.’
But if this place of isolation and exclusion offers its patients a refuge from a cold and uncomprehending world, it also offers Jackie an alternative family and protection from the selfishness of the father she hopes to save – a father who eventually asks her to witness his suicide, and whose brutal honesty knows no bounds: ‘Did you ever love me?’ ‘I don’t know Jackie, I don’t know if I did.’
The personal also blends with the political as Stridsberg shows us the human impact of the Mental Healthcare Reform of the 1990s. When Olof, who has spent almost his whole life in Beckomberga, is forced to leave, his doctor asks him what he is afraid of. Olof replies, ‘That they won’t like me out there.’
Although the ‘family’ of the subtitle alludes to the fact that her own father was a patient there for a time, Beckomberga is no autobiographical novel. Stridsberg takes the bare historical facts of a Swedish location and weaves them into something stark and yet hauntingly beautiful, where the darkness merges with the light unceasingly.