Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2013:2
Review Section: Fiction: The Present
Ideas are woven into the flowing text of this intense novella about a young woman sinking into a near-psychotic state. One is introduced in the title: the Helios disaster is a reference to Helios Airways flight 522, which ended with the death of all on board after a series of human errors led to it crashing into a mountain north of Marathon, Greece. In the author’s eyes, the disaster has a mythological dimension: ‘The dead, strapped in their seats while the plane flew on its course under the sky. The dead pilots and the crew of gods who had come to fetch us.’
The second idea turns up on the first page; this time, it is based on classical Greek myth, but strangely modernised so that the present-day narrator, a young woman, and her mad father are Athena and Zeus reborn: ‘My father gave birth to me. I split his head. For a moment as long as life itself, we stand facing each other and meet each other’s eyes… His woollen stockings greedily suck up the blood.’
These two ideas, or motifs, are rarely mentioned again. Instead, second and third-order references in the girl’s mental world remind you of them: spears and golden helmets, Greek islands, speaking (untaught) classical Greek, the Mediterranean, sea-green eyes and madness that might be divine.
Arguably ‘madness’ is not just an idea, but rather the essence of the book. Maintaining a precarious balance on the brink of madness, perhaps of death, is intrinsic to the life of the narrator, whom we meet as the twelve-year-old girl born knowing but inarticulate from her father’s head. As her father is carted off to mental hospital, the girl is taken care of by a kindly but baffled local family. ‘The way you turned up from nowhere is a marvel’, they tell her.
Birgitta, Sven and their two teenage sons Ulf and Urban become fond of the strangeling who agrees to be called Anna. She quickly learns to speak and seems happy enough, but remains quiet and withdrawn. She longs for her lost father.
Then the story starts anew. Anna is now in her late teens and has become so unreachable that she is admitted to mental hospital. To the doctors, she says just one thing: ‘Can you help me die?’
Death obsesses her, as do many other things. The next 40-odd pages are filled with Anna’s frightening fantasies – about snakes, deep wells, blood, a mirror-bright sea. Dream-like states are interrupted by more aware moments when she attempts to respond to the hospital routine and the kind but helpless staff, and to cope with her excruciating loneliness. Anna clings to her memories of another world, of being with her father, under the sky, by the sea: ‘To sense the last beats of your heart. Such liberation is denied to me. Why? Because I was Athena.’
The story is tightly, cleverly organised around a central idea: to show how Anna’s perceptive, disturbed mind struggles to impose some kind of mental order and, finally, fails. It is through Anna’s eyes that we see the other characters but her observations are limited by her lack of real interest in them. Internal monologues are difficult to sustain, but the writing is accomplished and the author’s passionate involvement with her protagonist illuminates what it is like to slide irresistibly away from reality.
In case the author’s name and the determined self-revelation of her prose has left anyone in doubt: yes, she is married to Karl-Ove Knausgård.