Albert Bonniers förlag, 2016.
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2016:2
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
Ellen Mattson's Snow (translated by Sarah Death) was published by Jonathan Cape in 2005.
It is Sandra’s last summer of freedom before her final year at school. She happens on an old house in the woods and sees a group of people taking tea in the garden. There is something of the film set about the faded elegance and deep concentration of this tableau as she tumbles out of the forest into their company. Ylva, Pierre and Rickard are as usual spending the summer at their grandmother Marika’s house; their parents are travelling in Europe, seeking the best treatment for the mother’s illness. Puberty is a time of shifts, but these three seem especially fluid; at times they are childish, at others very mature. Rickard, the youngest at fifteen, is a small, nerdy, precocious boy, indulged by his elder siblings; Sandra thinks they sometimes look like mother, father and child. She keeps visiting and is tolerated, included in activities and excursions, but remains the outsider. There is a class dimension here; they have a privileged life in Switzerland and high professional expectations, while Sandra’s parents are florists and she plans to take an art course at college. The three siblings are always playing, often strange games of their own invention. The phrase ‘it’s just a game’ recurs, but it is clear from the outset that it is a potentially sinister one. There are menacing undercurrents in virtually every scene, from Sandra’s very first swim when Rickard grabs her foot underwater and makes her fall on the rocks. They race the wind in their sailing boat, watch the sea surge beneath the boathouse, see a myriad starfish washed ashore as a giant ship passes, and exult as a storm blows in. The narrative tension mounts, and we anticipate the worst without knowing what form it will take. When the accident finally happens it initially seems tame, almost negligible. Like the watcher on the shore, we wonder afterwards whether it really happened. But its consequences are devastating.
There is delightful period detail in food, dress and pop songs on tangle- prone cassette tapes, but older history is ever present in this sea-facing kingdom that is trying to turn its back on time. Letting the forest grow up around her, Marika wants nothing to change. She looks perpetually seawards; her rotting old house with its rooms of treasures is itself almost a ship, partly made of timbers salvaged from shipwrecks. There is something becalmed about Marika and I was not the only reader to think of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Marika’s party dress is silver, mermaid-like, and there are references to pirates and sea captains that bring Peter Pan to mind. Marika ultimately admits to Sandra that she allowed her into the family circle for her sheer ordinariness, as ballast for the grandchildren who always seemed about to fly away – another Barrie reference? In the west-coast setting that Mattson knows so well, nature is evoked in sights, sounds and salty air. The writing is beautifully crafted, the imagery invigorating: sails are likened to big white fruits and Sandra visualises her adult personality as something that will emerge like a sharp metal blade shooting upward, heedless of who or what it damages. Mattson takes the familiar children’s book trope of siblings removed from parental authority into new surroundings with potential for adventure and turns it into a real-life drama which, despite the glitter with which Sandra’s romantic eye imbues it, slowly, implacably, unfolds towards tragedy. With its explorations of both adolescence and old age, this is a novel with potentially very wide appeal. The fact that the big guns of literary reviewing were mobilised in Sweden for Sommarleken points to the esteem in which the author’s work is held. This is Mattson’s tenth novel, and certainly one of my favourites.