Weyler förlag, 2011. ISBN: 9789185849543
Reviewed by Janny Middelbeek-Oortgiesen in SBR 2011:2
Tomas Bannerhed’s debut novel Korparna was probably the work of fiction that caused the greatest stir in Sweden this spring. It is set in Småland county, where the author grew up in 1970s. It starts one summer and follows the year ahead in the life of Klas Georgsson. Klas is twelve years old and lives with his parents and his younger brother Göran on a small farm that has been in the family for generations. The land is waterlogged, but the family’s hard labour made it produce enough. Now, a modern threat looms: the allotment plans recently put forward by the government. Agne, Klas’s father, tries to cope by working hard, keeping track of the weather (always too hot, too wet, too dry…) and excessive use of chemicals against vermin that may or may not exist. He wants Klas to take over the farm, but views the future with growing anxiety, seeing signs of decay and distress everywhere. And although his wife tries her best to keep the atmosphere at home cheerful, Agne’s gloom infects the whole family. Klas wets his bed sometimes and Göran often hides in his room when things become too tense. Klas feels oppressed both by his father’s wish that he should take over the farm and by the prospect of the world outside. Being the best pupil in his class (like his father before him) doesn’t make his life any easier, nor do the remarks by people in the village about Agne’s increasingly strange behaviour. Klas seeks solace in nature: he feels absolutely free when he observes plants and birds. Then he meets and falls in love with Veronika. She and her parents have come from somewhere near Stockholm to settle in the village. Through her, he is initiated into a different lifestyle, one that includes Veronika’s father discussing Hesse’s book Steppenwolf. Although Klas feels happier now, Veronika’s absence – she has left for a long holiday with her mother – saddens him. At home, the shadows cast by Agne’s obsessions and abnormal behaviours grow longer. He doesn’t sleep, collects rubbish; finally, he installs himself in the boiler room. Admittance to mental hospital turns out to be inevitable. It brings a period of relief for his family, but Klas worries that he might be insane, like his father and his father’s father, who drowned himself when Agne was same age that he is now. After all, he habitually talks to the all-seeing Wodan’s eye above his bed. Agne is discharged from hospital, but he isn’t better. His old behaviours recur and his anxiety grows even stronger: he hears ravens destroy everything. Soon, he is back in the hospital. Klas, now in a disturbed state of mind, falters in his attempt to work on the farm, has a panic attack and hides himself in the woods. The pressure on Klas increases, when Agne comes home again and confides more about the family history to his son. Torn between loyalty to, and love for, his father, and his anger and fear, Klas wants to escape. Then, one day, his father’s cap is seen floating in a canal. Klas himself finds the dead body. Korparna was acclaimed by Swedish critics: ‘…extraordinarily mature prose (…) very impressive’ (Svenska Dagbladet); ‘… the best Swedish first novel (…) in a long time’ (Expressen). I agree: Bannerhed shows great psychological insight, and brings his dark story to life superbly. It is moving, grips you by the throat and yet the author lightens his epic tale with the beautiful, lyrical and very precise tone and his flashes of humour. A narrative pulse keeps you reading, and the dialogue is spot-on. The passages about birds work well and are actually instructive. Korparna is a great novel that tells you something about la condition humaine – it is also a very Swedish one, with links to writers like Vilhelm Moberg and Harry Martinson. A nomination for the prestigious August Prize 2011 wouldn’t surprise me at all.