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Gerda Antti, Livet skriver kapitel (Life Writes its Chapters)

Bonniers,  2001. ISBN: 9100577111

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2003:1

Vera is a nurse and married to Sigge, a farmer in a rural area where depopulation and closure of local services have taken the life out of the community. She has a long drive to her shifts at the hospital in the nearest town. Her husband can scarcely afford to pay his sole employee; her elderly parents, who live next door, need help; and her adult son Ville makes a meagre living by working all hours as the village mechanic. As the novel opens, Sigge has just died unexpectedly of a stroke, and Vera’s grief and loneliness are genuine, but she narrates her tale in a muted, almost philosophical tone. She finds, “on a shelf I didn’t even know I had,” reserves of strength to survive the shock. She derives comfort from solitude with only her dogs for company, arranges for the farm hand to run the farm and moves on surprisingly quickly to an intermittent physical relationship, fond but scarcely passionate, with a married man, a drug company rep she meets at the hospital. Her nurse’s eye gradually alerts her to the fact that he is exhibiting symptoms of what may be cancer, but he seeks treatment too late, and at the end of the novel he, too, dies. She visits him in another ward of her own hospital but is unable to express her feelings in his wife’s presence. Even before Sigge’s death, Ville had embarked on an unlikely and ultimately disastrous marriage to Ylva, a fastidious and seemingly calculating dentist who uses him as good peasant breeding stock and then virtually refuses to have anything else to do with him. She withdraws with their son Benjamin to her own part of the house, exploits Ville financially and eventually divorces him and moves with Benjamin to Norway, to marry her lover. The boy is allowed only occasional visits to his father and grandmother, to Vera’s distress, yet her account of Vigge’s marriage and Ylva’s betrayal shows her as a strangely passive onlooker. The novel certainly includes many perceptive insights into life in modern Sweden – its rural decline, its inadequate modern health service, the demise of the nuclear family, and so on – but the tone is not of anger, more of melancholy resignation. Writing in Swedish Book Review as long ago as 1983, Helena Forsås-Scott identified one of Antti’s major short-comings as her “lack of distance to her subject matter in general and to her central character in particular” (1983:2, p.11) Little has changed. In Life Writes its Chapters – whose very title, like those of Antti’s earlier Inte värre än vanligt (No Worse than Usual, 1977), Ett ögonblick i sänder (One Moment at a Time, 1980) and Jag reder mig nog (I’ll Get By, 1983), indicates a stoic but powerless perspective – the central character is the only person to whose consciousness we are admitted, and she is too numbed, too passive. In a sense doubly widowed, then robbed of her beloved only grandchild, Vera would have every justification for grabbing our attention by shouting out loud, but instead her story emerges in a rather droning monologue, which this reader at least found hard to concentrate on for any length of time.

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