In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist (transl. Henning Koch): A grief observed and endured

Cover image 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.

11 thoughts on “In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist (transl. Henning Koch): A grief observed and endured”

  1. Phew! Sounds perhaps a little too moving and powerful for me right now, should wait a bit before reading this. Awful how bad things seem to pile up on one person, I do hope writing this offered him some respite.

  2. Lovely review. I imagine it is a difficult book to read, and perhaps at the moment it suffers from what seems to be a bit of a surfeit of grief / medical memoirs, but it sounds like the structure is interesting and it, perhaps, offers something slightly different. There just seems to be a lot of these types of books around at the moment (or maybe they’re just more on display).

    1. Thank you, Belinda. I know what you mean about medical memoirs. There does seem to have been a great deal of them lately. I thought that Malmquist’s decision to write it as a piece of fiction worked well, both for the reader and, I’m sure, for his own sake.

  3. Interesting that he decided to write this as fiction rather than a memoir – I wonder if it gave him a bit of distance from it as he wrote, or if he did it for other reasons. It’s the first I’ve heard the term “auto-fiction”. Anyway, it sounds wonderful and will be going on my list!

    1. I think that must have come into it, Naomi. The first section is remarkably powerful: panicky, shocked and frenetic. I’d not heard of auto-fiction before, either, then – as is so often the case – I came across it in reference to another book shortly after finishing this one. I hope you’ll be as impressed with the novel as I am.

  4. This sounds immensely powerful. Definitely not one to read in a public place as I suspect it will have me in tears! Its fascinating that he chose to write it as fiction too, as you say, making it more immediate.

    1. I was a little sceptical when I read the press release but having read the book I think it was the best form to choose for both Malmquist and his readers. And you’re absolutely right – best read quietly in private.

  5. This sounds like an emotional read, with the dark subject. Yet, your review has me very interested in picking up this book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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