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.
When Will Boast shows a writer friend a fictionalised version of his family history she tells him ‘If you put all that in, no one will believe it’. Perhaps she might have said no one would want to believe it for much of his story is too sad, striking too close to home. By the age of twenty-four Boast had lost first his mother when he was seventeen, then his brother not two years later, and lastly his father. At this point you might be forgiven for assuming this is a misery memoir – that tired old genre which seems, thankfully, to have slipped away – but despite its inevitable sadness Boast’s book is as much a page-turning mystery as an exploration of what must have felt like overwhelming grief. When turning out his father’s papers he discovers not only that Andrew had been divorced but that he’d had two children by his first wife, two half-brothers kept secret from Boast and his brother.
Boast’s father drank himself to death – collapsing on his way home from work when his stomach ulcer ruptured – although some might say he died of a broken heart. His wife had succumbed to a brain tumour five years before, and his youngest son, Rory, had been killed in a car crash after a drunken spree. Both Andrew and Nancy were British, transplanted to Wisconsin via Ireland by Andrew’s plastics firm. Boast remembers visits to the UK, summers spent in Southampton and Salisbury, never quite feeling at home in the mid-West where the ‘Cheerio, everyone’ of his first day at school, aged seven, haunts him into his teenage years. He’s the studious son, his brother the wild one – handsome and cool with it. Their parents row continually about money, sleeping in separate rooms and seemingly only tolerating each other but Andrew nurses Nancy tenderly when she becomes ill. An accomplished engineer, he has forty patents under his belt, works all hours and is stingy to put it mildly. When Boast decides to get in touch with his half-brothers after Andrew’s death a different father emerges: a handsome, dapper young man, beautifully and expensively dressed; a charmer who marries an older woman.
Losing a parent when young marks you out but being left virtually without family by the time you’re twenty-four is a very hard burden to bear. To then find that there are two unknown half-siblings in the wings would be enough to send anyone into a flat spin. Boast’s book is a painfully honest account of his experience and how he sets about dealing – or not dealing – with it. His need to reach out to his half-brothers is coupled with a wariness that borders on suspicion; he finds himself in competition with Arthur as to which of their very different versions is the real Andrew; he uses his plight to manipulate young women – all this delivered in unfussy, un-selfpitying prose. In his final chapter he applies all that he’s learned about his family to his previous understanding of their history. We all know our parents as just that – their previous lives the stuff of family stories, embroidered and polished over the years. We take for granted what they tell us or what we choose to infer. We don’t ask about the gaps, the discrepancies – too caught up in our own growing-up, then our own lives until it’s too late. Epilogue is Boast’s attempt to fill those gaps. Let’s hope that writing it helped ease his pain.