Norstedts, 2010. ISBN: 9789113029887
Reviewed by Birgitta Thompson in SBR 2011:1
After four previous, unsuccessful nominations, Sigrid Combüchen has finally won the prestigious August Prize for her latest novel Spill, which attracted overwhelming praise on publication. It is a cleverly composed work by a writer who has obviously greatly enjoyed delving into the details of a ladies’ novel without plunging into the chicklit category. At the outset she asked herself whether it would be possible to write a novel based on specifically female hobbies and mundane tasks such as gardening, sewing and cooking and subjects like fashion, looks, jewellery, films and illusions of love. This novel proves that it can indeed be done. The brief afterword says that everything in this novel is fiction, even the first person narrator, a writer called Sigrid Combüchen. She receives a letter from a reader, Hedwig Langmark, a pensioner who now lives with her husband in Spain. She would like to know more about a photograph briefly described in one of Combüchen’s books: it seems to be one of herself, her parents and three brothers outside her childhood home in Lund in May, 1937. The author reveals that, a few years previously, she found the photo together with several more in a local antique shop; the house is still quite close to where she herself lives, although Hedwig gets the wrong impression that the writer actually lives in the old childhood home, and is deliberately left in that belief. This is the start of a journey back in time which, piece by piece, is slotted together to reveal how the life of Hedwig, or Hedda as she is called in the novel, turned out as a result of the choices she made towards the end of the 30s. The story of Hedda is based on the correspondence between Hedwig and Sigrid, the author, over several years and on the author’s research into the period using the internet, magazines and forgotten old films, as well as on poetic licence and pure fiction. Hedwig gradually writes less about the old days, preferring to dwell on the present, while Sigrid has the ambition to write a novel from that time about this particular neighbourhood in Lund. The more she finds out, the more convinced she is that Hedwig has wasted her life, her opportunities and her considerable talents. Hedwig emphatically denies this, and anyway defends the waste as part of life; most things in life are wasted and only a fraction is made use of. She herself is content with how her life turned out; while Sigrid is fascinated by the past, Hedwig wants to live in the present. As a young girl, she had a number of skills — a little bit of this, a little bit of that, but definitely not a talent for writing that the author has shown. In her letters Hedwig refuses to acknowledge an alternative life: to her, there is no ‘if only...’. The author focuses on the year after that photo was taken in 1937, when Hedwig, also known to family and friends as Hedda, was about to pass the ‘studentexamen’ (school-leaving exam) with top marks; it was probably the last photo of the whole family together. Less than two years later the youngest son died from bone cancer; Hedwig’s distress at his death was to remain with her for life, she reveals in one of her letters. Like her elder brother she intends to go to university, but as was so often the case at the time, her affluent middle-class parents insist that she does something more useful first; it is taken for granted that she will soon get married. She is sent to Stockholm to learn to be a dressmaker, and is so successful that she is offered a permanent job and partnership in the business. Fame beckons; she also lands a couple of minor roles in mediocre films and gets involved with the film industry in which her other brother works together with the considerably older man who is to become her lover and father of her child — there are some intensely explicit and sensuous lovemaking scenes. Her choice of somebody else as her husband results in a lifelong and happy marriage, even though at first it looked far from promising. The descriptions of her miserable lodgings and the skills involved in fashionable dress-making have the flavour of a bygone era, like the Stockholm atmosphere that is captured with admirable accuracy and poetic flair. The correspondence between the two women finally peters out after ten years; they did not become intimate, but kept each other at arm’s length and never met. This is a technically and stylistically accomplished novel on several levels that allows the author to discuss her writing and her sources from different angles. By quoting from a large selection of Hedwig’s letters at length, she enables comparisons between them and her own tale; in the process she cannot help presenting herself as something of a snooping hyena who, in Hedwig’s words, gets everything contaminated by fiction, even reality. This novel is indeed a fascinating story of the interwoven factual and fictional lives of Hedwig-Hedda.