Acclaimed poet Tom Malmquist’s book comes labelled by the publisher as a piece of ‘auto-fiction’ – a novel based on the author’s life rather than a memoir. Already garlanded with prizes in the author’s native Sweden, it’s the story of Tom whose partner Karin dies a few weeks after the premature birth of their daughter, beginning with Karin’s emergency hospital admission and ending with their daughter’s first day at pre-school.
Struggling for breath, Karin is rushed to the intensive care unit of a Stockholm hospital, six weeks before she’s due to give birth. At first it seems she may have pneumonia but several tests later she’s diagnosed with a case of acute leukemia. Her baby is healthy but needs to be delivered before Karin deteriorates beyond saving. Tom finds himself in a frantic daze of shock, desperately trying to grasp the situation, attempting to master it by gleaning every detail he can from Karin’s medical team and spreading the news to family and friends with whose shock and horror he must cope as well as his own. What feels like a few hours after Karin was admitted, their daughter Livia is thrust into his arms then taken quickly to the neonatal ward. For the next few weeks, Tom travels from one ward to the other, impotently watching his partner’s decline while his daughter begins to thrive. Soon he must take Livia home alone, then a bureaucratic nightmare is unleashed. Tom and Karin weren’t married: he has to prove he is Livia’s father to keep her. Stunned by grief and exhausted by lack of sleep, Tom devotes himself to Livia. Four months after her birth his father is admitted into palliative care. Malmquist’s heart-wrenching novel plumbs the depths of Tom’s grief through which shine flashes of joy as he learns how to take care of his beloved daughter.
This is an intensely immersive book. The choice to write it as fiction rather than autobiography allows Malmquist to play with form and language making it much more immediate. There are five sections but no chapters within them, only the occasional break. The first section is taken up with Tom’s experiences in the hospital; its breathless tone conveys the confusion, shock and panic of the situation much more powerfully than a tidy linear account. It’s a strange disorienting time when trivial concerns such as Tom’s worries about whether the hob has been left on at home and the whereabouts of a puffer jacket throw up a screen as if to shield him from the horror of what is happening. In the following section, vivid memories of Tom’s relationship with Karin punctuate his new life spent wrestling with Social Services, arranging Karin’s funeral and anxiously learning how to be a parent. Poignant details leap out from the often matter-of-fact narrative – Tom’s repeated calls to Karin’s phone to hear her voice, his singing of Here Comes the Sun to Livia. It’s an extraordinarily powerful book, impossible not to be moved by it. I hope Malmquist found some sort of catharsis in writing his novel.