Norstedts förlag, 2016.
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2017:1
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
At the impressively young age of forty Karolina, a scholar of decadent art and its portrayals of women at the end of the nineteenth century, has attained the status of professor of art history at the University of Stockholm. But as the novel opens, she is not in a good place. She has recently split up with her partner of eleven years and is living alone, feeling sorry for herself. She appears initially as a modern- day flâneuse, idling away her leisure time around the capital, but we soon realise she has more in common psychologically with the down-and- outs she encounters on the streets. She never felt comfortable with the wealthy art-collector circles her former partner moved in but she fails to make real contact with her academic colleagues either, finding them either pompous and vain or essentially banal. She overindulges in alcohol, sex, and the thrill of anything mildly taboo, be it porn on her office computer or a fling with a man who votes for the far right. She is visited by dreams of terrible destruction; a recurrent one features a huge ferry ploughing into the rocks and destroying the block of flats where she lives. To put it in the terms of her particular academic field, we might say she has entered her own Mannerist phase, her life descending into a grotesque caricature of itself.
Parachuting into the chaos of Karolina’s life comes insouciant young doctoral student Anton, who first materialises in her office, in an enjoyable reversal of the usual gender roles, as a vision of beauty to rekindle the sparkle in her eyes. He has spent a year in Berlin and claims to have unearthed breathtaking correspondence that reveals a forgotten young Swedish woman artist to be a key player in the German Expressionist movement. But even his thrilling discoveries and the irresistible sexual frisson between them cannot prevent her self-esteem continuing to ebb away.
She dutifully visits her parents in the small town where she grew up, a place she was once desperate to escape. Bohman, herself a product of a similar background, has written previously about the self-loathing of the middle classes. Karolina, however, experiences a recurring urge to give in and nestle into conventional middle- class life with husband, house, children and an unassuming, socially useful job. But at heart she does not feel she belongs anywhere, either in the dream of domesticity or in the professional life that has somehow happened to her. When a married man with whom she had an affair unexpectedly resuscitates the relationship and invites her on holiday, she makes rose-tinted preparations, but is scarcely even surprised when he cancels at the last minute. Surely many of us can identify with her resolve, after yet another disappointment, never to feel happy about the prospect of anything again, out of sheer self-preservation?
The only thing Karolina seems to relish is the reading for a new phase in her research, on the artistic representation of apes and monkeys in the post-Darwin era. She develops a strange fascination with a woman who volunteered for an experiment conducted by a Soviet scientist in the 1920s, to fertilise her with the sperm of an ape. Karolina draws parallels with her own life, lending Bohman’s novel the air of an anthropological study of the educated twenty-first century human female. But any hopes for tangible progress towards women ‘having it all’ appear misplaced. In Bohman’s iteration, the female subject leaves us with a lingering sense of alienation, melancholy and malaise, notwithstanding the fresh breeze of wider horizons blowing through the last page after a delicious final twist in the Karolina-Anton plot.