Albert Bonniers förlag, 2006. ISBN: 9789100110338
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2007:2
"Another new morning. Did I wake up in the mornings? My skin smelt like an ashtray soaked in beer. I grabbed a tomato someone had left lying around. Crept back to my hours out in the park, at the swings. Before school. After school. The tomato tasted good, bleeding slowly onto the roof of my mouth.
Why were schooldays so short?
Why didn’t anyone come and take me away?"
What must it feel like to be a twelve-year-old girl whose parents are hopeless alcoholics, addicted to binges that last for weeks, oblivious to the needs of you and your brothers? We are given gut-wrenching insight into the life of such a girl, Leena, in Susanna Alakoski’s emotionally powerful account, which won the Best Novel category of the August Prize in 2006.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, in the small, southern Swedish town of Ystad, a community of Finnish immigrants has collected. Some families, Leena’s included, are lucky enough to get flats on a newly-built estate, relishing the luxury of hot and cold running water, indoor toilets, balconies and more cupboards than they need. Swedish society, from neighbours to social services, treats the immigrants with suspicion and condescension, and that part of town is soon cruelly nicknamed "The Pigsties", but the opening chapters of the novel describe a family life that is, on the surface, impoverished yet normal and cheerful. The children enjoy occasional treats, have a cat and a dog, and plenty of friends nearby. Mum, who regrets leaving school early and is an eager patron of the local public library, bakes bread and buns, is an energetic organizer of budget outings and activities, and a champion make-do-and-mender who unpicks old woollens to knit or crochet them haphazardly into clothes and rugs for the family ("Where there’s wool there’s hope."). Dad, an enthusiastic Finnish patriot with halting Swedish and a poorly-paid job in an employment creation scheme, is nonetheless an eternal optimist, an almost heroic Mr. Fixit who manages to furnish their new flat for virtually nothing, dragging home cast-off furniture and electrical goods until Leena thinks his arms are as long as an orang-utan’s.
But this modest happiness dissolves as the true extent of the alcohol abuse of Leena’s parents and their circle are revealed. What begin as occasional drinking bouts grow longer and more frequent until the sober periods seem like rare oases in a desert of chaos, physical violence and neglect. Leena finds herself identifying above all with Terrie the dog, hiding under the table, trembling and unfed.
The strain on the children manifests itself in different ways at school: Markku turns into a troublemaker, little Sakari becomes virtually mute, and Leena’s teacher has to explain to her that there is really no need to arrange everything into obsessively straight lines. Forced to shoulder responsibility at an early age, Leena becomes an expert at spotting the signs. First come the triggering phrases: "It’s hopeless. It’s pointless. We’ll never afford..."; then Mum’s complaints of claustrophobia; Dad’s swearing, and finally a visit to "The Smuggler" with the child allowance money in his pocket, returning with a clanking plastic bag. Then Leena knows that an unsavoury group of "friends" will soon invade her home. It is time to conserve whatever food and clean clothes there are, to prepare to survive on school dinners and become invisible, spending long evenings at the swings or at friends’ homes to avoid the squalid flat. One of the saddest scenes in the book is when Leena is due to play recorder in a school concert while her mother lies in a drunken stupor, so she is forced to retrieve her crumpled best dress from the dirty washing basket.
The hours at school are Leena’s saving grace and give her the strength to carry on: "I was unreal. School was real." In the summer, the sea and the beach are her refuge. She is also able to escape to the swimming pool, where she has turned out to be a promising young star of the swimming club, attired in a saggy second-hand costume, winning races and competitions which her parents never see.
After every descent into hell, hope somehow springs eternal that it will Never Happen Again. Leena’s bitten-down fingernails heal, her anger subsides, Dad promises total abstinence, Mum drinks coffee with her friends, there are regular meals, toilet paper and stripey toothpaste again. But life grows darker still: Dad starts hitting his daughter as well as his wife; Mum becomes suicidal, so Leena has to hide the sharp knives and lives in constant fear of what she will come home to. Her mother manages to take a near-lethal overdose, and when her father collapses with alcohol poisoning and is hospitalized at the same time, the children are taken into temporary foster care. But for all the official help, attention and rehabilitation courses this generates, it is clear that ingrained behaviour patterns will be repeated, and the next crisis is just around the corner. Leena loves her parents and wants so much to respect them, but they let her down time after time. A drunken parent can never look a child in the eye. And yet the motley band of youngsters, united by their parents’ irresponsibility and neglect, somehow retain an irrepressible survival instinct, finding something to cling on to and look forward to. Leena proves a resilient and courageous protagonist; with her mother lying in intensive care, she announces in matter-of-fact tone: "I managed to turn off the panic without instructions." Her spirit remains unbroken in spite of everything, and by the end of the book she has made a decision: "I put myself in a queue for a different direction to my life."
The Pigsties has been a runaway success in Sweden, topping the hardback and paperback charts for months. With the so-called "misery memoir" genre now seemingly a fixture in our bookshops, autobiographical novels by children of alcoholic parents are no rarity, but what marks Alakoski’s out from the rest are the consistently complex, unsentimental child’s eye perspective, the liberal doses of original humour and the inventive use of language. At one point, Leena memorably characterizes the party-hosting mother of a rich classmate as "Mrs Blueberry Hair with rolled up hundred-kronor notes sticking out of her ears". As the domestic situation worsens, the writing intensifies, becoming bolder and more experimental. There is a particularly striking use of compounds; Leena describes her mother, for example, as "welfaresubservientsweating" when she goes to plead with the benefit officer for extra money for Leena’s swimming trip.
The novel is also an evocatively nostalgic period piece, set to a soundtrack of "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" and Abba’s "Waterloo". Alakoski’s writing has been likened to that of Frank McCourt, and it does indeed have some of the same exuberance, careworn charm and shocking impact.