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Verklighetsprojektet Isabella Nilsson, Verklighetsprojektet (The Reality Project)

X Publishing,  2011.

Reviewed by Tuva Tod in SBR 2012:2

Publisher's recommended age: 15+

A book for young people before leaving home, or just reading at leisure while still living at home. Reality is a manifold concept, but we take it for granted. In Verklighetsprojektet, we are required to look closer at ‘reality’ in different contexts.

It is easy to see why a ‘puzzle about life’ might attract a young readership wondering what love and happiness, work, social life and economics mean. How do we tackle our lives? The adult reader may also feel challenged. What are/were our values? The Reality Project is the vehicle for revealing a young girl’s (the narrator’s) progress towards achieving self-esteem – one condition for becoming a successful adult.

A nineteen-year-old girl moves into a flat of her own. She has an unhappy love affair. The vet has to put down Nelson, her dog and dear companion, because he is suffering from cancer. Now, she is totally alone. As the girl struggles to cope, the reader knows she is not abandoned. She is monitored by a committee of ‘dedicated’ imaginary figures, who hold different opinions but have a corporate identity: Reality Check Ltd. They start the girl’s ‘Reality Project’ for a year ending at Christmas, record and discuss her progress.

The Reality Committee members are unexpected: Toad in his skipper’s cap and his friend Cricket; the deceased Nelson, the angelic dog, now undoubtedly a member of the Heavenly Host; an assertive wolf, Sylvester, with razor sharp teeth, keen to tell right from wrong – his heart always in the right place – plus a gang of ‘vandal rodents’ (free translation of vandalgnagare) who eat all the time and giggle in all the wrong places. The membership also includes inanimate objects like a glass carafe and, simply, ‘the raisin’ (russinet). These fairytale characters can ‘step into’ the girl’s ‘reality’ to help in a crisis. Do they represent the girl’s unconscious? Are they meant to direct the tale or just to appeal to the reader’s sense of humour?

The hub of the argument is to be found in the girl’s internal dialogue. She is involved with language – asking herself endless questions and answering them with pointless paradoxes. She ends up talking to the wallpaper, going just blah blah blah. Making sense of contradictions is this girl’s task. So how can she believe in her own words? Her ground is constantly shifting. The Committee is supportive but not conclusive. How should she act? Experience of life comes to her rescue.

She finds no sense in her boyfriend’s betrayals. She is scrupulously honest when she investigates his behaviour and her own rights. Isak is always excusing himself with platitudes. The author relentlessly reveals the mentality of those who live by platitudes. As for ‘common sense’ she sees it as not always sensible or common.

The love story of the girl and Isak, the ‘civil engineer’, is not remarkable. She wants security and he is a playboy. When she thinks she has lost her hold on him, her distress is deep and eloquent. Her self-esteem hits rock-bottom. But she does not succumb. She sees that when your glass is half-empty it is also half-full. You need two halves to fill the glass, and she resents being taken for granted which is not just painful, it simply doesn’t work. It is not security she wants from Isak – it is commitment. She tells him it is all over.

On the very last page, the girl is holding the hand of someone new, just as on the first page she held the hand of ‘a civil engineer’. Now she is better prepared. Given the author’s preoccupation with language, is the new man’s profession indicative of a different lifestyle? Well, he is referred to as the ‘Art Director’.

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