Wahlström & Widstrand, 2013.
Reviewed by Agnes Broome in SBR 2013:2
Review Section: Fiction: The Past and the Present
In Vägen mot bålberget, Therése Söderlind returns to the Swedish north she portrayed in her debut novel, Norrlands svårmod (The Melancholy of Norrland). This time Söderlind has taken her inspiration from a dark but horrifyingly real chapter in the history of Ångermanland, the county where she herself grew up, crafting from it a story that spans almost 400 years. The plot revolves around Stake Mountain, a hill on which 71 local women, sentenced to death for witchcraft, were beheaded and burnt in the 1670s, and the little town of Nyland, physically and figuratively in the mountain’s shadow.
Vägen mot bålberget, a structurally complex book, is narrated in four different time periods, by four different narrators. First out is Jacke, a middleaged, notoriously unfaithful man who in 1975 tries to engage with his teenage daughter Veronika by helping her with a genealogy project in school. Veronika’s questions, Jacke’s reminiscences and the facts they discover together set the scene for the family chronicle that follows and introduces Malin, the great-grandmother of the family, who was one of the women sentenced to burn on Stake Mountain.
In the next section of the novel it is Malin herself who takes over the narration, as Söderlind throws us straight into the almost inhumanly harsh reality of the rural Swedish north in the seventeenth century. We follow Malin from her childhood on a small subsistence farm in Nyland through her teenage years and into a marriage with the violent Erke. It is a raw story, full of terrible deprivations and acts of brutality, which culminates in the mass hysteria of the witch trials. Almost one in five women in the area was burnt at the stake. As Malin, condemned on the testimony of children, is thrown into a dungeon to await her punishment, the narrative switches to the present day. Veronika, who is now middle-aged and lives an unfulfilling, lonely life, has become increasingly focused on uncovering the many secrets of her family tree. Her story, though unfortunately rather pale after the visceral impact of Malin’s section, underlines that the past always matters in the present and allows Söderlind to add some subtlety to the interrogation of the power relationships between men and women that is more bluntly conducted in relation to the witch trials.
Veronika is then swiftly followed by Olof, a child at the time of the witch trials, later married to Malin and Erke’s daughter Segrid, who in 1740 has become an old man and who retells the rest of Malin’s story, filling in many, but not all of the blanks Söderlind had left us with. Olof’s narration shows how the first steps on the long road to recovery from an exceptional trauma such as the witch trials may be taken, but his story also drives home the fact that we can never escape the crimes and secrets of the past, even when individuals and communities do their best to move on.
Vägen mot bålberget, like Norrlands svårmod, is a brick of a novel, and its physical size is matched by the scope of the story, which has broken out of the traditional historical novel mould and become something much bigger. Within the covers of Vägen mot bålberget we find: portraits of exceptionally strong women; that ineffable northern Swedish turn of phrase that may give Söderlind a place among such great writers as Kerstin Ekman and Torgny Lindgren; coming-of-age stories; investigations of patriarchy past and present; lessons about compassion and forgiveness…and more.
At its core, though, beneath the clever and captivating complications of the narrative, this is a book about secrets and the shame and guilt that lie at the root of them. It asks us whether we must forever be hostages to the past, it shows us that the dark secrets of our forebears will always whisper in our blood and suggests that we can never truly know other people, even the ones close to us. Especially, perhaps, the ones close to us. In Therése Söderlind’s second novel, every person is a bottomless shaft leading down the generations, to secrets within secrets within secrets.