Natur och Kultur, 2014.
Reviewed by Fiona Graham in SBR 2015:2
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
‘Father’s letter confirmed my conviction and transformed the promise I had given him into a law that could not be gainsaid. I was alone, strong, chosen, and there was no longer any room for doubt: I was to destroy the universe.’
This is the situation in which the alchemist’s daughter, thirteen-year-old Rebis, finds herself at the beginning of the novel.She has just lost her severe but adored father, Colonel Leo Drakenstierna, one of a long line of alchemists and gnostics. Like the Cathars of Languedoc, the Drakenstiernas espouse a Manichaean world-view. In their dualistic cosmology, only the spiritual is of divine origin, while the material universe is the work of the Demiurge, or Devil. The alchemists’ ultimate aim is thus to release the human souls trapped in gross flesh by annihilating all that exists. Bound by filial duty, Rebis applies herself to studying the works of the hermetic philosophers and hermetic philosophers and honing her skills as an alchemist. On the cusp of the nineteenth century, when she herself reaches nineteen, she sets out into the abhorred material world to meet her relatives, in the hope that they can help her fulfil her mission. Her journey takes her, via the seedy taverns and squalid alleyways of Gothenburg, to the aptly named Rue du Bout du Monde in Paris, where her austere aunt Marianne LaPierre instructs her in the art of creating the Philosopher’s Stone. Then it is time to visit her even more forbidding uncle Diedrich Grunlöwen in Verlohrne Straße (Lost Street), Berlin. (Edenborg has an almost Dickensian weakness for the portentous name). It has been inculcated into Rebis since earliest youth that she must eschew the sins of the flesh. But temptation appears – in the shape of her loose-living but surprisingly attractive cousin Andreas, and her deft-fingered maidservant, Kristina. The consequences are horrific, and Rebis is forced to flee, on foot and in disguise, to Swedish Pomerania, where she takes ship to her homeland. Will Rebis – whose very name, from res bina (double matter), signifies the unification through alchemy of contradictory qualities, the material and the spiritual – remain true to her father’s uncompromising creed and obliterate the whole of life? Or will she learn to think for herself? An intellectual duel in Greifswald with the historical figure Thomas Thorild – a poet and philosopher represented here as something of a Pangloss – fails to convince her that this world is worth saving. Ultimately, it is a personal relationship that changes her outlook. To give away more of the plot would be to take away the suspense element of this highly entertaining book. Suffice it to say that nothing is what it seems in Edenborg’s counterfactual historical romance. In the light of successive revelations, the reader is impelled to reread certain passages in search of the clues planted by an author who patently enjoys playing with his audience. At the same time, Rebis’s story proceeds at a gallop, both metaphorically and literally as the end draws near.
Edenborg, whose doctoral thesis dealt with the history of alchemy, writes convincingly of its occult rituals. More generally, he successfully conjures up the sights, sounds and smells of late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century Europe, bringing scenes and individuals to vigorous life. This is a ripping yarn with a difference; while its premise may seem preposterous in an age when alchemy has long been discredited, it may well prompt the more melancholy reader to reflect seriously on whether the Drakenstiernas’ Manichaean view of the world we live in is really so far- fetched.