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Majgull Axelsson, Is och vatten, vatten och is (Ice and Water, Water and Ice)

Norstedts,  2008. ISBN: 9789113018362

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2009:2

This is a novel that grips you by the throat from the start. Someone has been in Susanne’s cabin again, and this time he has urinated on the wall. There is a sense of intense claustrophobia and threat as the story unfolds and the intruder pays repeated visits, his acts (for she feels sure it is a he) escalating from mild vandalism to laying out her clothes on the bed to look like a female figure, with a belt pulled tight where the neck should be, in a simulated shipboard murder.

The ship in question is the icebreaker Oden, forging its way through Arctic regions. On board is a party of research scientists, accompanied by Susanne, a thriller writer. She is, as Axelsson herself was, part of the cultural programme of the International Polar Year 2007-08, which saw writers, artists and musicians attached to scientific expeditions. It is clear that the author was awed by the beauty and tranquillity of the setting. She uses it as a jumping-off point for a complex, multi-generational human drama. Within the cramped confines of the ship, everyday inhibitions are lost and unexpected motives for joining the expedition are revealed. Susanne’s overriding reaction to the unsavoury cabin intruder is one of shame and concealment rather than indignation, and she seems a cowed figure, haunted by the past.

Meanwhile, in another life back in Sweden, decades before, a young man’s meteoric rise to stardom as the lead singer in a pop group – it is no accident that he shares the name of an ABBA member – has a profound and ultimately destructive impact on Björn and his family. Axelsson’s 450 well-written pages slowly reveal the connection between these two strands of the plot. The glare of publicity, as he and the other band members dodge the fans mobbing them on their trip to London to appear on Top of the Pops, puts normality out of reach. His family life has been disconcerting from the outset, as he was brought up by his mother’s twin sister, becoming like a brother to his cousin Susanne.

A step further back in time, a pretty and inseparable pair of twin girls, Elsie and Inez, enjoy a cosseted life until their father falls ill and spends long periods in hospital before his premature death, obliging their mother to earn a living as a teacher. The girls gradually drift apart, and Elsie, the more vivacious and sociable twin, falls pregnant in what amounts to a rape. She is unable to bear the thought of the child, but her sister, by then trapped in a dull marriage and unambitious job (memorably evoked in all their tedium as the book progresses), insists on bringing the boy up. Elsie runs away to work as a ship’s wireless operator, travelling the world. Inez, a woman obsessed, scarcely bothers to hide the fact that she loves Björn more than her own daughter, and Susanne’s childhood and adolescence are spent unseen and unheard, her invisibility compounded when Björn becomes a teenage superstar.

The tragedy that follows is provoked by a manipulative local girl, Eva, who has befriended Susanne purely to get close to Björn. On a tour of the Swedish provinces as the group’s popularity is on the wane, when Eva is getting bored, and Björn has been upset by his mother for once trying to discuss their relationship, Eva choreographs a scene. The band’s former lead singer sneaks on stage and mimes Björn hanging himself because his starry career is over, causing the audience to roar with laughter. Björn attacks him and then runs off; he disappears and no one knows his eventual fate. The loss of Björn has a devastating effect on his foster mother Inez. She suffers a complete breakdown, viciously accuses Susanne of being utterly worthless, and is admitted to a mental hospital. Susanne and her emotionally illiterate father live out a basic existence until Elsie decides she must atone for her desertion. She comes home to organise everyone, and above all to act as a mentor to Susanne, persuading her that she is a valuable human being in her own right.

With a failed marriage and an abortive attempt to become a poet behind her, Susanne is still trying to come to terms with her past as she voyages through the Arctic wastes. She finally deduces that one of the ship’s less pleasant scientists is the same person who once mocked Björn off stage. He is the cabin intruder, too, seeing how far he can push Susanne. She finds closure by humiliating him, making him crawl, and reducing him to an irrelevance.

The novel is an exploration of the nature of motherly love, and the extent to which maternal feelings are instinctive or acquirable. It is also a case study in sibling rivalry, a destructive rivalry that appears to be passed down to the next generation, in the tensions between the two cousins. As in other Axelsson novels, there is a fascination with doubleness and alternatives; the book’s title is surely a reference to the fact that ice and water, like siblings, are elementally the same but different.

In a life-affirming ending, both Susanne out on deck at night and – to his surprise – the grizzled duty officer on the bridge stretch their arms wide to embrace the eerily beautiful polar world and celebrate their right to be in it. There is enough excellent material in this book for several novels. It confirms Axelsson’s position as one of Sweden’s most interesting and accomplished contemporary storytellers.

Also by Majgull Axelsson

  • Jag heter inte Miriam (My Name is not Miriam). Reviewed by Janny Middelbeek-Oortgiesen in SBR 2014:2.
  • Den jag aldrig var (The Woman I Never Was). Reviewed by Linda Schenck in SBR 2005:1.
  • En stad av slott (A City of Castles). Reviewed by Linda Schenck in SBR 2003:1.
  • Slumpvandring (Random migration). Reviewed by Linda Schenck in SBR 2000:2.

Other reviews by Sarah Death

Other reviews in SBR 2009:2

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