I have to admit to picking this up because it’s Swedish. I read it during what seemed to be a period of deep virtual immersion in Scandiland – watching the first series of The Legacy re-watching Borgen and reading Martin Booth’s excellent The Almost Nearly Perfect People squarely aimed at people like me who have a tendency to think of Scandinavia as a Nordic Nirvana. Håkan Nesser is well-known as a crime writer and I’m not a crime reader however A Summer with Kim Novak is billed as ‘combining coming-of-age and crime’. To my mind, it’s very much more the former than the latter: there is a crime but it’s not the point of the book.
Erik, our narrator, was fourteen years old during 1962 or the summer of The Terrible Thing as he refers to the event that’s frequently foreshadowed in the first part of the novel. His mother is dying and his father decides that Erik should go to the family summer house with his older brother, Henry, and a colleague’s son, Edmund, also coping with a sick mother. A sophisticated sharp dresser – at least to a fourteen-year-old – with an eye for beautiful women, Henry has given up his journalist job to write a book. Once established in Genesaret, it becomes clear that Henry’s fiancée will not be joining them as planned, and soon Ewa Kaludis comes visiting. Erik’s summer term had been brightened by the arrival of Ewa – the spitting image, as you’ve probably guessed, of glamorous film star Kim Novak, and the fiancée of the local handball hero – who rides her smart red Puch around town, charming all, not least her eager pupils. Over the summer Erik and Edmund become close, bonding over their ailing mothers and their burgeoning lust for Ewa. All changes after the night of The Terrible Thing: the two boys will not see each other for many years when it becomes clear that each has taken a very different path.
Given Nesser’s celebrated reputation as a crime writer it’s entirely possible that readers primed for a police procedural might be disappointed in this novel but for me it worked well. Nesser captures the awkwardness of adolescence beautifully. Erik and Edmund’s troubled backgrounds cement an entirely believable bond between them, each taking solace in the other. Despite all that’s happening at home they manage to have what both are agreed is a ‘brilliant summer’: living a life free of adult restraint, rowing on the lake, fantasising about Ewa, forging a friendship which in the normal turn of events would last for life. Nesser is particularly good on the strangulated emotions which surround Erik’s mother – he and his father communicate in clichés, both terrified of what’s happening. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the dénouement, cleverly unfolded though it was, but I’ll leave you to decide about that – for me the path to it in the final section of the book seemed a little improbable. Coming-of-age rather than crime novel, then, and if that’s how you judge it a thoroughly successful one.
Slim publishing pickings in December – a bit of famine after the autumn feast. Not a great month if you’re looking for anything cheerful, either, but an excellent one for fans of fiction in translation beginning with Andrea Canobbio’s Three Light-Years. Cecilia and Claudio share lunch most days in the hospital where they work. Both are embroiled in difficult domestic situations: she’s a single parent, newly separated – he lives in the same apartment building as his senile mother, ex-wife and her new family. Despite their powerful attraction both are wary of their friendship becoming something more until a chance meeting changes everything. Canobbio’s novel comes from Maclehose Press who have quite an eye for fiction in translation.
As do World Editions, a new publisher on the UK block who have published several interesting titles this year including Esther Gerritsen’s Craving. December sees the publication of You Have Me to Love the first adult title from Dutch children’s writer Jaap Robben. Mikael lives on an island between Scotland and Norway. When his father disappears into the sea one day Mikael refuses to talk about it and his mother becomes mad with grief. Not exactly cheery, I know, but given World Editions’ track record it seems worth a look.
The next title is by Japanese Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Ōe, reported to have been working on a novel featuring a character based on his father by the New York Times a little while ago, apparently. Death by Water sees an ageing Nobel Prize-winning writer – struck by writer’s block and struggling to find the words to write about his drowned father – returning to his village in search of a cache of documents which may offer the solution to his predicament.
Serpent’s Tail is reissuing another Nobel Prize-winning author’s novel, Herta Müller’s The Passport, this month. I’ve read just one novel by Müller which I enjoyed immensely but have somehow not got around to reading more. This one interweaves stories from the present and past, centring on a village in Ceaucescu’s Romania whose miller wants to migrate to West Germany. Beautiful writing, apparently, which I remember from The Land of Green Plums.
That’s it for December. I’m hoping for some cheerier novels in January. In the meantime a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. And if you’d like to catch up with November’s embarrassment of riches they’re here, here and here.