Bonnier Carlsen, 2010. ISBN: 9789163867224
Reviewed by Linda Schenck in SBR 2011:1
With Nyckelbarnen, Sara Kadefors will have another opportunity to stand up for her own work, if it is translated into English. She received a great deal of press coverage in Sweden when her teen novel Sandor Slash Ida was ‘translated’ (published by Penguin) as R U 4 Real?, a rewritten English version, set in the US, and with, as Svenska Dagbladet put it: ‘new names, a new country, and much less sex.’ Her US editor, Alisha Niehaus, explained that if Penguin was going to be able to distribute the book, they had to reach the booksellers, who would have been resistant to the book in its original form. Kadefors’ own reaction was: ‘The most important thing for me is that the book reaches readers. If the publisher thinks they will be able to reach more readers by making it about American characters, that will benefit me both financially and as an author.’ (Svenska Dagbladet April 7, 2009). As a translator, your reviewer has her reservations. The subject, though, is of wider interest given that that much Swedish literature for young people is considered by Anglo-Saxon publishers to be ‘too difficult’ for their target readership. That, in turn, is part of the larger question of what the point of translating literature is, and of whether much other than crime fiction will be translated from Swedish in the foreseeable future. Nyckelbarnen is about eleven and twelve-year-olds who come home from school and are alone until their parents return from work. It focuses on three classmates in quite different family situations. The first-person narrator, Siri, has had her own key for two years, but thanks to organised after-school activities on the school premises, she has not yet had to use it. As the novel opens, she begins fifth grade, and funding has been cut for those activities. She’s not a very sociable child, and so has no choice but to go home alone to a flat that feels ‘three times as large and three times as silent’ as usual. Her parents seem mainly puzzled by her loneliness and her resistance to becoming involved in, for example, a drama group. Nor do they realize that she is still a little girl. They have problems of their own. As the semester passes, Siri, to her own surprise, becomes friendly with two classmates who live in her building, Linn and Leo. Linn lives with her mother and her older sister. Her mother, who feels that her girls are finally big enough to let her have a bit of a life of her own, has become involved with a new man and pays very little attention to the children. Linn defends her fiercely all the same. Leo is an adopted child, and his parents appear to be more involved with showing and training their pedigree dogs than caring for their little boy. He acts out at school. The triumvirate evolves mainly as a reaction to their class teacher’s way of handling Leo’s antics, which borders on bullying. Now that none of them is alone, the world becomes a more exciting, more manageable place and, before they know it, they are completely at home at the local shopping mall and beginning to find the neighborhood a bit tame. Linn begins to shoplift. Nazir, a classmate with the opposite problem to the three – overprotective parents – entices them to complicity in his way of demanding freedom by being one step ahead in boldness. For instance, he steals the school headmistress’s keys and encourages the others to help him play practical jokes of varying degrees of vandalism, such as dying her white jacket green, moving all her office furniture around and destroying her keyboard. There is a fine line between fun and hurtful, and the shift is gradual. Gradually, Siri becomes aware that her parents have been lying to her about their divorce plans. Linn’s mother goes from in love to unemployed, lonely and depressed. The children’s anxiety takes the form of experimentation, such as spying on parents, shopping online with a father’s credit card, deleting documents from a computer and donating a mother’s favorite clothes to charity. Chaos ensues. Siri runs away from home and is ‘hidden’ for a few days by Nazir. In the end a new, somewhat overly neat, order has been established. Siri is happier in sixth grade now that her parents are divorced, Linn’s mother is ‘getting help’ and Nazir’s and Leo’s families seem to have learned something about what children need. After having been, at first, a bit too childish to be credible, Nyckelbarnen moves toward being a bit too extreme to be realistic, only to finish off by being a bit too good to be true.