The Bird Within Me by Sara Lundberg (Sweden)

translated by B.J.Epstein

The Swedish Artist Berta Hansson

The concept of this illustrated children’s book really appealed to me. It’s inspired and based on the childhood of the Swedish artist Berta Hansson (1910-1994) during the period in her life when she was 12 years old and wanted to be outdoors in nature or painting or making birds out of clay.

However, her father was strict and serious and her mother was frail and in bed very ill, so she was needed to help out in the home and on the farm, and all the more so when one of her older sisters was sent away to study domestic science, to learn how to become a better homemaker.

She initiates a form of protest.

Housewife. Housewives.

That’s what Dad wants us to be –

Julia, Gunna and me –

because that’s how it’s always been

and that’s how it’s going to be.

A Role Model or a Muse

Berta wanted something else for her life, but had no role model or knowledge of how to make her dreams a reality. Her Uncle Johan whom she secretly admired, painted with oil paints and made fiddles instead of spending all his time on farm work, sadly he was looked down on and derided, referred to as the ‘theatre farmer‘.

Sometimes late at night she would sneak out and wander over to a copse of trees by the Doctor’s house, one of the few people who had ever complimented her art.

The Bird Within Me Painting Muse

Photo by Zaksheuskaya on Pexels.com

I peer in.
He sits in the armchair,
reading and smoking his pipe.
If he saw me, I would die.
Paintings hang on his walls from the floor to the ceiling.
They are so beautiful.
I can’t stop looking at them.
To think that someone has painted them.

Breaking Out

It is a story of family and obligations, and of the longing a child has for something that is difficult to articulate or express in words, little understood by the world of adults who harbour expectations.

How to sustain and realise dreams when the way is not clear.

It’s a celebration of the exploration of art and observation in youth and of the struggle against the familial and cultural conditioning and expectations of girls.

A beautiful and thought provoking book for all ages.

You can find a copy of the book here.

Naondel, The Red Abbey Chronicles by Maria Turtschaninoff (Finland)

translated by Annie Prime (from Swedish).

Naondel The Red Abbey Chronicles feminist fantasy WIT MonthNaondel is the name of the ship that will bring the First Women to the island of Menos.

We have already been on the island in the first book of this series, Maresi, where there have been mentions of the names of those who came here first. We know about the safety of this island, a place from which men are forbidden to set foot and we know from the stories of those who are on the island of the menace that exists elsewhere.

The Abbey must never forget what was endured to create this refuge for our successors, a place where women can work and learn side by side.

Now we go back to the beginning, to when these women lived in their own very different communities, with their families and learn how they came to be living together, imprisoned within the same household, there due to the desire of one man, and what it was that drives them ultimately to leave everything behind and seek refuge on this island.

Thus, most of the novel is spent in the oppressive ‘diarahesi’, the place of confinement where Iskan, the Vizier has brought the women within the palace of Ohaddin, to serve and service him. It is an idle life of entrapment, where they have no power over their lives or of their children, reduced to objects of one man’s desire.

I am not unhappy. There is no space inside me for unhappiness.  I am shedding my skin.  Beneath this old skin is one even older.  It is thick and hardy. It shall endure. It has scars along the wrists – one for each offering…With the power of this place  flowing through me, with an offering to the veins of the earth – blood for blood –  there are no walls that can stop the old Garai from emerging.

For Kabira, this place was once her home, long before its inhabitants were eliminated, its geography changed to suit the man who made her his wife. She had powers that came from Anji, something he would steal from her and misuse, bringing decades of torment.

There are few whom I have loved in my overlong life. Two of them I have betrayed. One I have killed. One has turned her back on me. And one has held my death in his hand. There is no beauty in my past. No goodness. Yet I am forcing myself to look back and recall Ohaddin, the palace, and all that came to passe therein.

As each woman joins the diarhesi, with their unique skills and talent, though they initially are weakened by this small life they are bound to; unbeknown to them, they are being prepared for something greater, that will pave the way for others, allowing them too to dream of escape, to a place where women can be safe, healed, educated and thrive.

Naondel Red Abbey Chronicles WIT MonthThe darkness these women endure, the evil that is perpetuated by their ruler, is only alleviated by the foreknowledge that we already know these women will eventually escape it. So we read in anticipation of that event, in the meantime getting to know each of them and the powers they had before they were enslaved.

And so we learn the stories of Kabira the First Mother, Clararas who led their flight, Garai the High Priestess, Estegi the servant and second Mother, Orseola the Dreamweaver, Sulani the Brave, Daera the first Rose, and Iona, who was lost.

Each women is so interesting, it’s almost a pity that we know only as much of her story, as is required to bring her to the palace. Maria Turtschaninoff writes interesting female protagonists, each of the unique and together an even greater force, if they can release themselves from the misused power their master has stolen and act together.

While the women live under the rule of a villainous man, the author never had the intention to create an anti-men series, however the book centres on the lives of the women and how they deal with their dilemma.

We have seen more women in fantasy recently, but they are still very much alone. One lone, strong girl, surrounded by men. And she’s always an anomaly, the one girl. So for me it was important building a community, and my point is not to support the myth that girls can’t be friends.

Fortunately it appears that she has re-entered this world and told the stories of two other characters, which hopefully will be picked up by a publisher and translated into English.

I already have two books published in Swedish and Finnish set in this world, but in very different parts of it, telling very different sorts of stories: Arra and Anaché. One is the story of a mute girl who can hear the songs of the world, and the other of a nomad girl who challenges her whole tribe’s gender norms in order to save her people. Each book I have written has left me with characters and story threads I would love to keep exploring.

Further Reading

My review of Maresi, Book 1 in The Red Abbey Chronicles

Never Stop Walking by Christina Rickardsson tr. Tara F. Chace

A Memoir of Finding Home Across the World

Living in Sweden and remembering nothing of her native language Portugese that she spoke until she was adopted at the age of eight, Christina Rickardsson, now 32-years-old is about to embark on her first trip back to the country of her birth to reconnect with elements of that initial period in her life, vividly recalled.

Recurring nightmares of her childhood awaken something in her sub-conscious, creating an emotional/ spiritual crisis that she addresses by revisiting .

I watched my eyes fill with tears as I realized that the little girl who had run for her life had just kept on running. I needed to stop running and once and for all, for my own sake, process what had happened.

A dual narrative flips between the present as she returns to Sao Paulo with her friend Rivia, who will act as her translator and the past where she shares the vivid memories and equally strong emotions of her early childhood years.

She reviews the adoption papers that have been locked in a safe for the past 24 years.

I’ve never felt the need to find out who I am, where I come from, or why I was abandoned. I know who I am, where I come from; most of all I know that I wasn’t abandoned. Kidnapping might be too strong a word to use for how our adoption transpired, but sometimes that’s what it felt like.

Some of the things she reads disturb her because they don’t ring true, she retains strong and tender feelings of love towards her biological mother and recalls the trauma of their separation but has never understood why. Her story is written in a desire to restore her mother’s name and tell their truth as she remembers it, to fill in the gaps in her knowledge and find out if her mother is still alive.

She recalls details of living in a forest cave in the Brazilian wilderness with her mother, of surviving on the streets of Sao Paulo and her time in an orphanage before she and her almost 2-year-old brother are adopted by a Swedish couple and begin a new life there.

Map from traditional symbols of culture and the nature of Brazil

She recalls her friendships with other children when they live in the streets, special moments, terrifying incidents and the strong emotions they evoke are equally remembered, her instinct for self-preservation is strong and her reactions to things spill over into her new life in Sweden, where they are often deemed inappropriate.

On some level, I began to understand that people, especially grown-ups, weren’t interested in the truth but rather in a truth that suited them. They only wanted to know about things that made stuff easier for them. It didn’t matter that I was walling off part of myself, that I was turning into someone else.

The relationship she remembers with her mother from childhood is tender, the bond strong, she defends it, and holds tight to the memories. There is a respectful appreciation for her Swedish family and clearly a difference between her feelings and those of her brother, who recalls little of his life in Brazil before their adoption.

There’s an undercurrent of sadness in this accomplished memoir, of a woman who is neither one thing nor the other, who can never let got of who she is, but must continue to live as that whom she has become.

She repeats often a kind of mantra, that life for her is not about finding herself, but about creating herself. And yet the two go hand in hand, as her story so adeptly shows, though she was separated from her mother, her country and culture, she lived in it long enough for something of it to have sunk deep into her psyche, which is not the case for children adopted at birth, or as toddlers. Many search to find out what she already knew, before they can freely go on to ‘create’ themselves anew, or to realise that they can be who they are, because they can make peace with the mystery of their unknown heritage.

I felt so much rage growing up that it frightened me. It filled me and destroyed me. I felt it, but I didn’t know how to handle it, so I smiled and laughed even more and did well in school…I had walled off my true self.

Eventually she finds a way to navigate the two selves by turning the focus outward, towards helping others, addressing the ache of having had to suppress her true self for so long.

She shares one of the more troubling stories of her childhood in a 15 minute TED Talk below and the inspiration behind the words in the title, Never Stop Walking.

Further Reading/Listening

Christina’s TEDTalk : The Lottery of Life

Article, 25 Oct 2018 Humaniam.org : Children, the main victims of violence and crime in Brazil

Buy a Copy of Never Stop Stop Walking via Book Depository

Hanna’s Daughters by Marianne Fredriksson tr. Joan Tate #WITMonth

In its original language the title was Anna, Hannah och Johanna. The title in English is misleading, as I read Hanna’s story and she continued to have one boy after the other, I wondered when she was going to have time to have those daughters, until I realised it was a generational reference.

Hanna has one daughter, Johanna, a name that carries its own story and past, before she is even born, one of the reasons she is closer to her father in her early years. Johanna would also have one daughter Anna, it is she who begins to narrate this story, she visits her mother in hospital, desperate to get answers to questions she has left it too late to ask.

She had lost her memory four years ago, then only a few months later her words had disappeared. She could see and hear, but could name neither objects nor people, so they lost all meaning.

Anna knows she is being demanding like a child, willing her mother to understand and respond, reprimanded by the care staff for upsetting her, for although she can’t respond, she remains vulnerable to the joys and anxieties of those around her and powerless to prevent the dreams that carry her each night back to the world of her childhood, that place her daughter is now desperately trying to access.

Anna finds an old photograph of her grandmother Hanna and recognises similarities she’s not been aware of, she remembers her briefly and recalls asking her mother:

‘Why isn’t she a proper Gran? Whose lap you can sit on and who tells stories?
And her mother’s voice: ‘She’s old and tired, Anna. She’s had enough of children. And there was never any time for stories in her life?’

The discovery of the photo and the recognition it awakens in Anna gets her thinking about the lives of all the women in her family, that by tracing the past and understanding the circumstances and decisions they had to make, she might better be able to navigate her own life, rather than blaming the relationship she is in for her misery.

The narrative then shifts back to Hanna’s childhood, born in 1871, she was the eldest of a second group of children born, the first four died in the famine of the 1860’s.

What the mother learned from the previous deaths was never to get fond of the new child. And to fear dirt and bad air.

The first half of the book is dedicated to Hanna and her life and this is where the novel is at its best, immersed in the struggle of Hanna’s early years, its tragic turning point and the situation she is forced to accept as a result. Circumstances that will become buried deep, that nevertheless leave their impression on how she is in the world and impact those daughters indirectly.

It is also in this section we learn how difficult life was for so many families on the border region between Norway and Sweden and the political discontent that existed at the time. People who had lived together peacefully, intermarried and seemed to be as one, as republican issues arose, discrimination added another layer to the challenges in their lives and became another reason for people to move on.

The mid-section comes back to reveal more of her grand-daughter Anna’s adult life, charmed by a man with womanizing tendencies, but of a generation that refuses to accept an unbearable situation, one where women are able to be financially independent and greater decision makers, though not necessarily fulfilled or happy with their lives.

Naturally I thought it was love driving me into Donald’s arms. In my generation, we were obsessed with a longing for a grand passion. Hanna, you would’ve understood nothing whatsoever about love of that kind. In your day, love hadn’t penetrated from the upper classes to the depths of peasantry.

Finally we learn more about Johanna’s life with her husband Arne, the good fortune that eventually came into her life, the trials that would follow, of a different nature than her mother’s, though not so far from her grandmother’s.

The second half of the book was less memorable, possibly because Hanna’s story created such a strong sense of place and life in that era was full of dramatic events which underpinned the development of all the characters around her. When the family moves to Gothenburg, to the city and its ways, when the automobile arrives and travels shortens distances, when life became modern, it tended to become more uniform, less distinct.

Marianne Fredriksson

Marianne Fredriksson in the opening pages of the novel reflects on something she learned at school, when Bible studies were still part of the curriculum, that the sins of the fathers are inflicted on children into the third and fourth generations. She felt that was terribly unjust, primitive and ridiculous, growing up, the first generation to be raised to be ‘independent’, those who were to take destiny into their own hands.

Then as knowledge developed and understanding of the importance of our social and psychological inheritance grew, those words began to acquire new meaning, and though there were none that spoke about the actions of mothers, here she found it to have more meaning.

We inherit patterns, behaviour and ways of reacting to a much greater extent than we like to admit. It has not been easy to adapt to; so much has been ‘forgotten’, disappearing into the subconscious when grandparents left farms and countryside where the family had lived for generations.

She goes on to say that ancient patterns are passed on from mothers to daughters, who have daughters… and that perhaps here too we might find some

explanation for why women have found it so difficult to stick up for themselves and make use of the rights an equal society has to offer.

It’s a book that considers the forces that influence us and asks what might have shaped us more, our personal and/or family history or the generation to which we belong. It gives us a little insight into the way of life and historical challenges of another part of the world.

Buy a copy of Hanna’s Daughters

via Book Depository

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald, tr. Alice Menzies

Readers of Broken WheelSometimes, these are the only books that will do. That rare breed of literature that entertains, uplifts and demands little in return, the books we read when we are fed up with thinking and wondering why certain things are the way they are.

Sara has always been seen by her family as wanting, harbouring a mild disapproval of her predilection for staying in and reading, her acceptance of a job in a quiet bookstore. Now that she is doing something out of the ordinary, leaving their sleepy Swedish town to travel to small town Iowa, they’re still not happy.

“It wasn’t clear which was worse, the tediousness or the risk of bumping into one of the many serial killers hiding in every nook and cranny… Honestly though, what do you know about people? If you didn’t have your nose in a book all the time…”

The bookshop Sara worked in has closed down and her world seems to have diminished to books and the lives within them. 

“Her little sister Josefin worked as a trainee lawyer for the district court on Södertälje. Eventually, she would be a solicitor, a socially viable profession carried out in suitability expensive suits. Sara, on the other hand… A bookshop. In a suburban shopping centre. That was only marginally better than being an unemployed former bookshop assistant like she was now. And now that she had finally gone abroad? She had chosen to go to a little backwater in the American countryside, to stay with an elderly lady.”

Broken Wheel SierraSara has been writing letters to Amy for the last two years, they are bookish pen pals who share a love of literature and enjoy the uninterrupted conversation of a letter. Amy invites Sara to visit, she arrives in the small, dilapidated town of Broken Wheel, most-likely it first and only ever tourist, only to find that the person who invited her didn’t tell her something VERY important that will affect her two month stay.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend takes a melancholic bunch of characters from a declining town in Iowa and puts the introverted, bookish Sara into its midst.

Though it is a small town, with not much going for it, it is an adventure for Sara to leave Sweden and travel to meet her bookish friend.

She discovers the important thing that Amy left out of her letters on her very first day and it will have an effect on the rest of her 2 month stay, where we meet a cast of fabulous, quirky characters and observe the transformation of a depressing little town.

The residents of Broken Wheel are not avid readers, they are not readers at all and don’t see things the way Sara sees them.

‘People are better in books,’ she muttered. She said it so quietly she didn’t think he could have heard her, but when she stole a glance at him, she thought she could see one of his eyebrows twitch. ‘Don’t you agree?’ she asked defensively?

‘No,’ he said.

Sara decides to convert Amy’s empty shop in the deserted town of Broken Wheel despite the fact the residents claim not to be readers. Slowly the wheel begins to turn…

Broken WheelA light-hearted, uplifting story that should be in the section of the bookstore or library entitled “guaranteed to lift or lighten your mood”.

It reminded me of that same feeling created by the author Antoine Laurain in The Red Notebook and was an absolute delight, just what I needed, a literary, bookish pick me up!

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

wolf winterSet in Swedish Lappland in 1717, Cecilia Ekbäck’s debut novel Wolf Winter follows a family of four, Maija, her husband Paavo and their daughters Frederika and Dorotea from a fishing village in their native Finland to the forested lands surrounding Sweden’s Blackåsen mountain.

They swap houses with Maija’s brother, deciding a life in the interior may be better suited to Paavo, who had developed numerous fears keeping him from earning his living at sea. However, when their daughters stumble across a dead body allegedly killed by wolves, on a route near the mountain, they begin to wonder whether they have left one dark dream for an even blacker nightmare.

Maiji suspects it was a crime and makes it her business to ask questions to an extremely reticent and unappreciative band of local settlers and itinerant Lapps. Her husband never questions her interference, even when present he plays no role and as soon as the first signs herald the approach of winter, he sets off alone for the coast, leaving the women-folk to survive the harsh physical elements and the even stranger mystical apparitions that some but not all will witness. Without a man to steer them out of trouble, the woman face many risks, not least being perceived as dabbling in witchcraft, as church records show has happened to a few others with similar inclinations who preceded them.

There is a new priest in town whom Maiji spends a few evenings shovelling snow with, holed up in her cabin, and the widow of the previous priest, who seems to know more than she is willing to pass on, brothers who steal wives, wolves whom some see and not others, and a teacher whose presence seems to awaken the angry ghosts of the departed.

Lapps or Laplanders circa 1900

Lapps or Laplanders circa 1900

Unfortunately, I couldn’t really get into this novel in the way I wanted to, though it wasn’t a difficult read.  It didn’t portray a sense of the era, it felt contemporary even though it did evoke a strong sense of place and it was clear there were no modern comforts. Perhaps it was the attitude and freedom of the protagonist that didn’t sit with the era.

The time spent with a number of the characters was so fleeting, it left too little of an impact and rendered them insufficient to develop an interest in. The storyline itself raised so many questions that went unanswered, like why did the husband go off and leave his family in such a vulnerable position when they could have gone with him and been protected. And why did the wife think she as a newcomer could become an investigator into a crime that clearly the locals were not happy about being questioned, especially when it threatened her safety. Her role was to assist in bringing new life (she was a kind of midwife) and yet at every turn she was endangering those close to her. The younger daughter nearly lost her feet to frostbite after trekking in a blizzard to ask the Lapps questions about the murder. I didn’t believe in Maiji’s intentions and relationships and the blurred line between reality and the mystical elements. I wanted to be drawn in by it, but was unable to brush off the scepticism.

So what drew me towards reading this novel in the first place?

Well the snowy winter setting was very appealing, the plot sounded intriguing and the praise of Hilary Mantel and the Library Journal, who had this to say definitely lured me in:

“The novel will appeal to readers who like their historical fiction dark and atmospheric, or mystery fans who are open to mysticism and unconventional sleuths. Readers who enjoyed the winter landscape and magical realism of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child may also want to try this.”  Library Journal

“The story creeps up and possesses the imagination; there’s something eerie in the way half-understood and only half-seen events leave their mark. It’s a powerful feat of suggestion, visually acute, skillfully written; it won’t easily erase its tracks in the reader’s mind.” Hilary Mantel

It was an interesting concept and disappointing that it wasn’t more engaging, but for those who like a good mystery with an element of hinted at magical realism, this could be just what Hilary Mantel suggests it is.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly made available in e-book format from the publisher via NetGalley.