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Gabriella Ahlström, De oförglömliga (The Unforgettable)

Norstedts,  2009. ISBN: 9789113021508

Reviewed by B.J. Epstein in SBR 2010:1

The one time in her life that Fredrika was truly happy and able to be herself was during a few blissful months in Paris. Fredrika, the plain and shy daughter of a well-known researcher and a famous actress, and older sister to a handsome, irresistible model and actor, has spent most of her life on the sidelines. While her relatives are out making names for themselves, getting a lot of attention and affection, she is at home, quietly observing and drawing birds. While those closest to her are living their lives seemingly without much concern for anyone else, she is their dependable support, never asking for anything in return. Always there, always reliable, always a bit dull and uninteresting. Until everything changes. In Paris, where she has gone to learn French, unconsciously hoping that a new language will bring with it a new identity, Fredrika makes her first real friend in Lily, her landlady, and truly falls in love with an American, Paul. With him, she is the kind of woman she did not know she could be; where previously she only looked for sex and physical contact, with Paul she is able and willing to connect both emotionally and mentally. But just as she is becoming comfortable with this new self and life, something happens. The reader does not learn until the end of the book exactly what this is, but it is not a complete surprise that her brother Simon plays a significant role. Fredrika suspects that it was intentional on his part to ruin her life, because he saw her being happy and was jealous; however, it is much more likely that he was just doing what was best for him by being his usual egotistical, careless self - which she in fact always supported and encouraged him to be, by not forcing him to take responsibility for his behaviour and actions. At any rate, crushed, she returns to Sweden, trying to protect herself by falling back into her old life and patterns of being. Soon thereafter Simon dies and Fredrika has a nervous breakdown. The novel is told in the form of flashbacks, some of which are described in Fredrika’s journal, while the rest are narrated in conversation with her psychologist, the wheelchair-bound Dr. Graninger. The effect of this is that De oförglömliga feels like a novel that ‘tells’ rather than ‘shows’. In other words, the reader is stuck for the entire book inside Fredrika’s head, which can be a constricting, depressing place to be, because Fredrika has a limited way of seeing the world, while also being portrayed as exceedingly boring and sad in order to make the point that she does not fit in with the rest of her family. On the other hand, this certainly is a moody and atmospheric story, which suits the dark subjects of family problems, bad parenting, unfaithful spouses, drug abuse and depression. Gabriella Ahlström is a Swedish journalist and children’s book author. De oförglömliga is her first novel for adults and it is has done very well in Sweden. It is unlike other popular contemporary Swedish books in its focus on character over plot, and readers can appreciate its minutely detailed portrait of a woman who is constantly disappointed by her family and aware of their many faults and yet remains faithful and devoted to them.

B. J. Epstein

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