Söderströms, 2004. ISBN: 9515222133
Reviewed by Tom Geddes in SBR 2005:2
English Translation: The American Girl, translated by Katarina E Tucker. Other Press, 2010. ISBN 9781590513040.
As Fagerholm’s fifth book and a further enhancement of her narrative technique, Den amerikanska flickan has aroused great interest in Finland, where it is nevertheless regarded as a slightly difficult experiment. Her Wonderful Women by the Water (Harvill, 1997), translated by the late Joan Tate, used a partial collage technique to evoke the sun, sea and sex of the swinging Sixties in one summer in the Finnish archipelago, and now The American Girl takes an ambitious stylistic leap into a more fragmented narrative, a post-modern, kaleidoscopic vehicle conveying the chaotic, inexplicable and unintelligible world of children and adolescents from dysfunctional families. It has an originality and poetic quality, but the tantalizing and often taxing style tends to overwhelm the narrative interest. Fragments of music provide a unifying leitmotif, and allusions to the Moomin books of Tove Jansson form a counterpoint hint of a cosy magical childhood in sharp contrast to the more insecure and threatening world of Fagerholm’s characters. But the main unity of the narrative lies in a group of houses in the forest by the shore on the Finnish mainland. The action shifts to an anonymous town by the sea, and briefly to the Åland Islands, but the settings and the way of life are not portrayed in detail, and adult figures are shadowy. The perspective is partly that of the children, partly that of an omniscient impersonal narrator playing with characters, time and stories. The same events are viewed from different viewpoints and different time perspectives. The plot centres on the leisure pursuits, games and interrelationships of the child protagonists. Repetition and leitmotifs are key devices. The non-linear narrative of time-shifts and fragmentary and gradually clarifying references to places and events requires patience of the reader. The story advances through association, and the mystery is as much in the narrative itself as in the plot. What is withheld is not simply concomitant with the limited perspective, knowledge or memory of a character, but is narrative playfulness taken to an extreme, conveying uncertainty and the intertwining of past and present, and testing to the limits the linear conventions of traditional narrative. There are several mysterious deaths, with possible solutions, some of which turn out to be invented stories. Even at the close of the novel, the reader cannot be sure that all is solved, and the fiction ends in irresolution with the promise of a second volume in which the next generation will reinvestigate several mysterious deaths (a post-modern ending indeed!). The story begins in the late 1960s on Coney Island, “where the music starts”, with Eddie (Edwina), destitute and hungry, singing in a recording booth. Some years later she will drown in a Finnish marsh, where she is found by Bengt, with whom it emerges she had been having an affair. She had also been seeing his cousin Björn, who commits suicide. Bengt and Björn, together with twin sisters Rita and Solveig, live in the care of “Cousinmamma”, a vague parental figure, who after Björn’s death takes in Doris, mistreated by her own parents. Bengt is a silent observer who prowls the neighbourhood and draws maps with reference to observed incidents, such as Eddie’s drowning. One assumes he may be autistic. The other major character and location is Sandra in the house in the boggier part of the forest (always referred to thus). She becomes best friends with Doris, and the two of them are the main investigators of (or rather, ruminators on) Eddie’s death. Sandra’s mother Lorelei Lindberg disappears and for much of the book the reader assumes she has been murdered. Eventually we learn that she may have been shot by her husband in the empty swimming pool in the house, and that Sandra witnessed and shared his guilty secret. But ultimately this turns out to be a misinterpretation by Doris. Doris eventually shoots herself when a teenager, and Sandra is quite traumatized by her loss, moving to the town by the sea and becoming part dilettante student and part prostitute, before eventually having a breakdown, an affair with the oddball Bengt and with a teacher, deteriorating in both character and circumstances. We learn that her frequent absences on Åland, where we assumed she went to stay with her father’s relatives, were in fact spent with her missing mother. In a reconciliation scene, her mother expresses her belated realization of the effect her failing marital relationship must have had on Sandra. Finally it is 2008 (a jocular meta-fictional adumbration of the publication date of the sequel?), and we are told that Rita’s daughter Johanna will want to solve the mysteries of the past. Thus reduced, the plot may sound banal, but it is not the main feature of this novel: the interest lies in the interweaving of language and experience and uncertainty in the world of children and adolescents.