The blurb for Ia Genberg’s The Details begins with the premise of a woman confined to bed by a mild fever, putting me a little in mind of Julia Blackburn’s The Leper’s Companions which I loved when I read it years ago. Genberg’s novel is nothing like Blackburn’s but I was very pleased it snagged my attention. Seized with the urge to read the novel her ex-lover gave her many years ago, our unnamed narrator recalls four significant people who have influenced her life beginning with Johanna.
The brink of insanity lies at 102 degrees, but not far below, at 100.4, there’s a clearly discernible valley where I wouldn’t mind spending my days. In that band your guard drops, and figures from the past are given access, though not as ghosts.
Our narrator met her lover at university while studying journalism, one of many interests she’d dallied with, unable to settle to anything. Johanna had showered her with generosity, encouraging her to write and making careful suggestions but she had another side to her character, cold and judgemental, traits switched on and off as easily as her lavish praise. Several years before she met Johanna, our narrator had shared a flat with Niki, apparently estranged from her wealthy parents, mercurial and passionate with mood swings that no therapist seemed capable of curbing. Just before the millennium, the world gripped with excitement and Y2K anxiety, our narrator had a brief and passionate affair with the charismatic Alejandro. All three have left an indelible mark on her but it is her mother, Birgitte, who perhaps holds the key to her character.
Niki was an adventure, an endless all-genre drama where nothing was static and nothing could be predicted.
In her translator’s note, Kira Josefsson mentions Karl Ove Knausgaard, drawing a parallel between Knausgaard’s prodigious output and Genberg’s concision from which I deduced that her novella is to some extent autobiographical. As Josefsson observes, the narrator’s life is revealed to us refracted through her relationships with others rather than documenting her every action, a style which I find very much more appealing. Genberg uses her narrator’s fever to explore her life in way that doesn’t rely on chronology, leaving her beginnings which have laid the foundations of her character until last although it’s Niki who gets the longest section. It’s pleasingly bookish right from the start: the novel our narrator reaches for in her fever is Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy with which she’s so impressed she finds herself standing outside Auster and Siri Hustvedt’s Brooklyn house many years later. An accomplished, thoughtful and absorbing piece of fiction, it’s a novel that conveys a great deal with an admirable brevity, a tribute to both Genberg and Josefsson’s skills. I gather it’s been an international bestseller, and deservedly so. I found it riveting and that cover, with its fractured mirror, fits it perfectly.
Wildfire: London 9781035400577 176 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)