Reviewed by Kari Dickson in SBR 2018:2
Review Section: Fiction
This is Mirja Unge’s fourth novel and much-awaited return to fiction, after a shift in focus towards plays in recent years. She returns to small-town Sweden, but, the reader should be warned, this is no social democratic utopia or rural idyll. It is brutal and aggressive, and could be depressing, were it not for the resilience of the main character and the language, which combine to give moments of humour and beauty.
Tove is fifteen and trying to find a space for herself. At home there is her father who is unpredictable and irascible, and terrorises her and her sister. He works night shifts at the local paper factory, and what one might initially think are worries about money (he complains about how much they eat, how much toilet paper they use), take on a more paranoid aspect when he produces his book of proof – proof of how his children are constantly undermining and conspiring against him. Tove’s older sister has come back home, and is unemployed, depressed and controlling. And she may have sexually abused Tove when they were younger. ‘Sis doesn’t know anything other than forced love that’s all there is to be had.’ And she is always trying to invade. Tove gets on with it and refuses to be occupied; she is good at avoidance and escape, often into a drunken stupor. But she holds her ground – ‘inside my head I still have my own space.’
Her school life is equally dysfunctional and chaotic. Her class is uncontrollable, and the boys are always trying it on with the girls. ‘If I could say what my body has in for it today what they do with it. I have no words for it the hands are just there and the pokes thumps pinches every day they’re there.’ They bully each other, they drink, they smoke, but they also seek each other out, find solidarity in their struggle to get a grip on life. Tove and her friend Vera look out for each other. And Tove gets on with it. She goes into town and finds a man to have sex with, before anyone else can take her virginity. She wants her body to be her own.
While the world around her sees her predominantly as an object, we are privy to her thoughts and how she sees other people, and there is an astuteness and warmth there. ‘I guess there’s a nerve, I say, a great big fucking life nerve that runs through all this shit.’ Tove very definitely has that nerve.
A quiet backdrop to this is Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Kuwait. It is in the background, on the TV in the bars and the pizzeria, in newspaper headlines. And at the end of the book, when Tove has moved out of the home to a small annex in a classmate’s garden, in a rare moment of togetherness, her father tells her that the war is over.
In his review of the book in Aftonbladet, Kristofer Folkhammar says that Mirja Unge’s impact on contemporary Swedish literature is not to be underestimated. Her style has been described as fresh and idiosyncratic, and is very distinct. To some critics, it is recognisable within a line or two. The language is straightforward and pithy, and the lack of punctuation demands close reading, but also gives the text a strong rhythm and almost poetic lift.