Albert Bonniers förlag, 2009. ISBN: 9789100121655
Reviewed by Irene Scobbie in SBR 2010:1
In her novel Hohaj (1997) Elisabeth Rynell introduces three narratives, those of a desolate widow, a runaway young man, and the abused daughter of an evil man. In their search for some form of redemption, their paths lead them to Hohaj and resolution. In Till Mervas (2002; To Mervas) a woman searching for redemption reaches Mervas where she encounters a genuinely good couple and her former lover. Both novels culminate in the various strands coalescing in a beautiful, restorative Norrland setting. In her latest novel, Hitta hem, two girls, Hild and Mala, live in different times but both are searching for their true selves. Hild’s story has an urban setting in the 1950s. She lives with a choleric, academic father and a disillusioned, housebound mother in a high-rise flat in a newly constructed suburb with modern conveniences but little spiritual nourishment. Even as a three-year-old Hild feels she doesn’t belong, and seeks out neighbours with a richer spiritual life. She wants to be a writer but home, school and society stifle her creative processes. Mala lives in the seventeenth century, where an austere Lutheranism has ousted Catholicism and many yearn for the spiritual comfort of forbidden saints, ancient chapels and monasteries. The stories alternate throughout the novel as we follow the destinies of Hild and Mala. Hild’s alienation culminates in teenage rebellion. She leaves school, moves to a London of the 1950s, where she visits squats, experiments with drugs and is raped. She then goes to Cornwall with her companion Jeff, and escapes with him from the police after a raid on a drug session on the beach. The pair set off towards the sea, seeking out a derelict cottage Jeff knows about. The wind through the grass is ‘an ancient unchanging melody. A sound that pervades everything. And they advance. Yes...’. Hild has presumably thrown off all ties and is on her way to spiritual freedom. Mala’s father, Niklas Stygg, a blacksmith, has brought up his daughter alone since the death of his wife. A pernicious rumour that he had slept with a female bear that had borne his child feeds superstition until he is killed by ignorant townspeople. Mala, now alone, learns that her father came from an isolated place in Hälsingland, and is advised to leave at once for the north. She is given a pilgrim’s cloak and her father’s outstanding wages by his kindly colleague, and told to go first to Uppsala, through wasteland and vast forests, to find the Stygg Mountain and Dilsbo, her father’s birthplace. So begins her pilgrimage through uncharted territory. She encounters other rootless wanderers en route: a strange old woman, a priest who no longer has a church, a homeless Pole, and a young boy struck dumb by a frightening episode in his life. Her simple faith leads her through dangers and hardships until she reaches her destination. Kind, generous people embrace her, a matriarchal figure gives her the true version of her father’s encounter with a bear; she is with her own people and has found her way home. Hild’s story begins with a good insight into the world of a sensitive child. It also allows the author to paint a realistic, ironic picture of the 1950s and a modern welfare state where rationalisation, hygiene and physical improvement stifle the child’s imagination. Mala’s world, on the other hand, has a timeless quality. In beautiful simple language at times almost biblical, Elisabeth Rynell captures the mystical mood of her earlier novels – the wonder of the awe-inspiring scenery, the changing seasons; it has the quality of legend, with Mala a heroine following her instructions to pursue the flight of the birds northwards until she reaches her destination. When she seems lost she sees a robin flying north and knows it is there for her benefit. Her simple faith in the protection of a higher being leads her from evil to goodness. The link between the two narratives is, of course, the quest by two beings alien in their respective worlds to find the path to fulfilment, but however skilful the separate episodes, I don’t feel that they have integrated wholly successfully. The author is an excellent storyteller and the two destinies hold the reader’s attention, but for me the true Rynell genius is found in Mala’s mystical wanderings as she finds her way through majestic, isolated Swedish landscapes.