Johanne Lykke Holm: Strega, translated by Saskia Vogel, Lolli Editions, 2022.
There is a real yellowish-green Strega liqueur in Italy, supposedly adapted from a secret recipe created by witches. The town in which it is made (Benevento rather than Strega) is in the Apennines, close to Naples, a bit further south than I was expecting from the description of the Alpine setting for the fictional town in Swedish author Holm’s novel. In fact, the setting is not important in this strange and unsettling little novel (only 180 pages): it is enough to know that it is a grand hotel in a remote location, with only a convent of liqueur-producing nuns as the nearest neighbour. Moreover, it is a grand hotel where no guest ever comes to stay, thus continuing my theme of unsettling Gothic mansions.
The narrator is one of nine young women who are being trained as hotel maids, sent by their families in the hope of acquiring good skills – but for what purpose? For a career, for marriage, to learn obedience, to stop being a nuisance at home? Everything is fluid and ambiguous, we are never quite sure what is going on. The work is repetitive and mechanical, apparently fulfilling no purpose whatsoever; the trainers/managers are matron-like and strict (as if they were in fact in a convent), and something feels decidedly wrong about the whole set-up. The similes imply violence, the hotel remains eerily empty.
We quickly learned that each day was a reproduction of the last. Morning after morning, we set out coffee and bread in the conservatory facing the park. There were large porcelain bowls filled with black marmalade. There was silverware on linen napkins. Morning after morning, a metallic light fell through the room like a butcher’s knife. I stood and watched it happen… For a moment I thought I saw someone coming, but I must have been mistaken. I went back to work. Refilled the coffee pots, sliced the tin loaf. No guests arrived.
The girls start to form bonds with each other, but the way they are treated gets more and more uncomfortable: they are examined, prodded, starved, made to kneel, humiliated. Above all, it appears that they are having their individuality stamped out of them.
All punishment in the hotel was collective. They treated us as one body, so we became one body. We forgot our individual traits and our individual responsibilities. If one of us stole a coin, all of us had stolen a coin. They poured boiling water over our feet and made us dip them in tubs of ice. The pain was unbearable, but no marks were left.
And then, one night, the hotel fills up with guests. The girls are expected to look their best, be on their best behaviour, serve the guests impeccably, yet all the while this sense of danger and disquiet persists. This is not a jolly, happy occasion, although it is a raucous one. Sure enough, one of the girls goes missing after the party. Search parties look for her in the mountainous terrain, but the girls are convinced that she is already dead. They are frightened yet feel trapped, they have nowhere else to go – but whether the sense of entrapment is real or all in their minds is not quite clear. The narrator Rafaela has chilling imaginary conversations with the murderer.
I knew the murderer was never far. I had seen him step out of the walls. I had seen him among the bed sheets… In every woman’s life, there’s someone waiting at the gate. We are all candidates, but only some of us are chosen. I knew there were holes in the earth waiting for us… One might have an urge to say: We would rather be martyrs together than live another second in this order. One does not. One bides one’s time. One waits for one’s murderer, one sees him everywhere. One imagines the night it will come to pass. One knows all about that night. One knows the lines.
As a metaphor for the violence that is constantly being perpetuated against women, both mentally and physically, and how they collude in their oppression, this is one of the most unsettling books I’ve read in a long time. I was not sure where this book was going most of the time, but I could feel its lingering poisonous atmosphere in the sickly sweetness of the liqueur. As you can see from the quotes above, the style is very simple: short sentences, repetitions, gradually building upon the previous passages or chapters, much like the ripples in water after you throw in a stone. A steady accumulation (or drip, drip, drip) of something very dark, which caused an almost visceral reaction when reading the book.
I knew a woman’s life could at any point be turned into a crime scene. I had yet to understand that I was already living inside the crime scene, that the crime scene was not the bed but the body, that the crime had already taken place.
Antti Tuomainen: The Healer, translated by Lola Rogers, Harvill Secker, 2013.
If all you have read so far of Finnish crime writer’s Tuomainen’s work is the series featuring hapless insurance assessor Henri which started with The Rabbit Factor, or the dark (and sometimes slapstick) comedy of standalones like Palm Beach Finland or Little Siberia, then you are in for a major surprise. In this early work, the first of his books to be translated into English, we are in a water-logged world that is nearing the end. The sea levels have risen and people are fleeing to the northern parts of the globe. Helsinki appears to be too far south to be safe, and we get to see a city that is half-abandoned, with damaged buildings and infrastructure, where missing people and laws mean nothing at all anymore. The scenes of railways stations overrun with climate refugees are memorable:
All around there were shouts, arguments, pleas, entreaties and threats. There were trains going north every hour, but even that wasn’t enough to lessen the flood of people. More and more people kept coming from the east, the south and the west. There was a black market on the plaza for ticket touts, purchasers of valuables, hundreds of thieves and swindlers with hundreds of tricks and scams, and of course ordinary people, each one more desperate than the last.
Yet Tapani Lehtinen, although he is normally a sensitive observer of his surroundings, a poet who writes daily although he knows no one is reading poetry anymore, is only focused on finding his wife Johanna. Although she has only been gone for a few hours, he is worried, because they had the habit of constantly communicating with each other. Johanna is a journalist and Tapani starts to suspect that she might have been researching about a serial killer known as ‘The Healer’ and that this might have something to do with her disappearance.
I recently rewatched the film Children of Men and this book was very much in that vein of an all-too-plausible, not-at-all-glamorous vision of the near-future. Everything feels dingy, hopeless, lawless. Who cares about a missing person or even a murder or two, when there are so many crimes happening daily, when people are dying of so many natural causes, when so many buildings are boarded up and dangers are lurking around every corner? The newspapers are only out to entertain people with stories about celebrities doing gross things rather than bring any real news or uncover ‘truths’. Nobody cares about any of that.
So, all in all, a bleak view of the world, although the love between Johanna and Tapani shows that there is still some beauty and hope left. However, this frail blossom is very effectively quashed by the cynical realism of the chief of police who half-heartedly agrees to help Tapani, much against his better judgment.
Whenever some lunatic gets it in his head that a few individuals are responsible for the world falling apart around him, we go after him. And what happens when we catch him? Some new lunatic comes along, and the world keeps marching towards destruction. That’s nothing new, of course. History tells us that this kind of things has happened many times before. Civilisation blossoms, and then it falls. It’s happened on this planet in our own lifetime, to millions and millons of people… But you take it harder, somehow, when it’s your own little world that’s dying.
I was planning to read more books from Northern Climes this month, but I started the rather depressing Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament and stalled. Life just got really messy, I fell down other reading rabbit holes, library books I’d reserved kept appearing and… and… I just didn’t have the strength to review much and often struggled to finish any of my books.
6 thoughts on “Northern Climes: Sweden and Finland”
The stripped down simple prose of those Strega quotes makes them quite chilling. A very effective style for such a theme.
Exactly – the very factual, cool style was perfectly suited to this endeavour.
The first quote from Strega reminds me of something else I read somewhere, to the effect that every woman, in some part of her self, spends her life waiting for her rape. Can’t remember where that was but it’s a hard-hitting sentiment.
Gosh, definitely a pair of bleak works. Strega sounds very powerful and unsettling – I think I would definitely need something lighter after that…
I agree, Marina Sofia, that The Healer is a bit bleak, but I liked it very much, and here and there I did see some dark wit. And I did like the portrayal of what Helsinki might look like under those circumstances.
As for the Holm, it does sound unsettling and even a bit claustrophobic. I think that’s one I’d have to be ready to read, if I can put it that way.
Strega sounds too unnerving for my tastes right now, but it does seem very effective. Those quotes are very arresting…