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Helena von Zweigbergk, Sånt man bara säger (Things You Just Say)

Norstedts,  2009. ISBN: 9789113019918

Reviewed by Tuva Tod in SBR 2010:1

Sånt man bara säger might at first sight seem a simplistic novel. But the reader soon realises that the issues at hand are a lot more contentious than they at first seem. The plot unfolds a number of family conflicts which are as easily accounted for as they are convincing. There are four characters: a father on the brink of death in hospital, two middle-class daughters both rebelling against previous unsatisfactory relationships, and Jonas, a taciturn teenager of fifteen, son of Louise the younger daughter. Sussi the older daughter is 53 years old, six years older than Louise, who was always the family favourite. It is soon clear that these characters cannot make contact with one another or themselves. Sussi, disillusioned with her career, accepts a ‘golden handshake’ to retire to a country cottage. She wants the peace that communing with nature can bring, and no human relationships. Her plan is soon wrecked by the necessity of feeding and housing Jonas. His mother has failed to pay her creditors before they evicted her and Jonas from home. Jonas, a dyslexic, has stopped going to school. To Louise, all this is easily left in the lap of Sussi, who after all has always been there for her. Sussi’s feelings are never consulted. Louise departs with ‘I’ll ring you as soon as I have sorted all this out’. Jonas the awkward teenager and Sussi the taciturn aunt are left to one another’s company for the foreseeable future. The paucity of the dialogue between aunt and nephew is remarkable. Their most pressing needs are covered by a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and even this proves inadequate. The aunt has to plead with the boy to elicit any response other than an expletive. It is therefore a surprise that expletives from the aunt come almost as freely. Their conflict seems to be resolved in the end not by any effort of imagination or increased psychological understanding on their part. It is their physical and financial circumstances that improve, not their communication. This lack of vital communication between the characters is crucial. It may even represent the be-all and end-all of the fictional characters in the book. But what is intended by the writer and how is the reader to interpret it? If we study what motivates the actions of the characters it emerges they are led on by force of circumstance rather than any ‘inner’ urges. Events come first, followed by the reactions of the characters – and of course the reader. In this sense our interest is engaged, because we see more than the characters do of their own destinies. We become visionaries, they remain actors on the ground. The writer is an accomplished storyteller, and the problem of this unfortunate family is compelling. Characterisation is crisp and to the point throughout and leaves us feeling the richer. The writer does not in any way judge her creation – this is left to us. It is an adventurous read, involving as it does both feelings and intellect.

Tuva Tod

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