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Sven Olov Karlsson, Amerikahuset (The American House)

Natur och Kultur,  2008. ISBN: 9789127115743

Reviewed by Tom Geddes in SBR 2009:1

Karlsson's first novel, Italienaren (The Italian), was reviewed in SBR 2003:2. This second novel is again a chronicle of rural Sweden, improving on the first and raised out of the ordinary by its language, its effective use of a dual time-frame, and its implicit humour. The American house of the title was built by a family forebear enriched by emigration to America.The focus is on two men, Eddy and Magnus, and the girlfriend of the former, Liselott, who becomes the lover of the latter. Minor parts are played by the mothers of the two men, Magnus' younger brother, a Finnish boy and a female vicar. Further characters and categories in the spoof cast list that prefaces the novel and sets the jocular tone have little or no role. The present-time narrative relates both the impact of the return of a murderer to the same small community where the crime was committed and provides a sensitive and impressionistic depiction of rural landscape, changes in rural life, and allusions to the longer historical context.The mood is one of pathos and black humour. Suspense is achieved not just in the alternation of time-frames, but in the gradual introduction of characters and past events in a non-linear plot.The man released from prison in the opening scene is not immediately identified as Eddy, but this is entirely in keeping with the impressionistic style. There is hardly any direct-speech dialogue. Everything is approached somewhat tangentially and from indirect perspectives, though the narrative comprises both that of an impersonal narrator and stream of consciousness.The prevalence of short sentences increases to even shorter staccato phrases to reflect states of mind.The imagery is original and appropriate, the description of landscape evocative and precise. The structure of the novel is 61 short numbered chapters, with a prologue and an epilogue in an alternating sequence set in 1984 and the present.This form of parallel narrative has become an over-used device of late, but this is a very successful example of the genre. The two time-frames gradually converge, with a teasing revelation of plot as the strands clarify the past and inform the present.The opaque approach culminates in a new younger lover of Liselott coming to set fire to Eddy's house, but the scene and the book end inconclusively, with an ironical hint of repetition of the jealousy that induced Eddy to murder in the first place. And penultimately, just as we thought we were coming to the full disclosure of Eddy's past deed, we have instead an episode in which Magnus's younger brother arrives with a gun for a revenge killing, but to Eddy's (and the reader's) surprise, acts rather differently. It is a dramatic and poetic twist, a double withholding of expectation.We are left to imagine how Eddy killed Magnus and how he was convicted of murder; and left to wonder whether the whole cycle is about to be repeated. The themes of love, jealousy and the ineffectual man trying to make good are universal, and the parochially Swedish references to the shift from a thriving agricultural and rural-industrial society to a demoralised and depopulated region with no clear sense of identity will evoke widespread recognition.This is a satisfying read, not entirely demystified until the end, with a plot that may be slight but is far from trite, a fascinating unravelling of character and motive, and an engaged and engaging evocation of social change.

Also by Sven Olov Karlsson

  • Italienaren (The Italian). Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2003:2.

Other reviews by Tom Geddes

Other reviews in SBR 2009:1

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