Tag Archives: World Editions

A Summer with Kim Novak by Håkan Nesser (transl. Saskia Vogel): A Swedish period piece

Cover imageI 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.

Craving by Esther Gerritsen (transl. by Michele Hutchison): Only connect

Cover imageEsther Gerritsen’s Craving is one of the first titles to be published by World Editions set up with the aim of bringing world literature to a wider audience, starting off with a fistful, of Dutch novels. Up to now I suspect most of us, me included, have had little or no contact with Dutch writing beyond Herman Koch’s much lauded The Dinner. Craving comes with a glowing endorsement from Mr Koch on its jacket, a handy indicator as to who might enjoy this darkly comic novel about death and family life.

Elisabeth is dying: we know that from the start. As she walks to the pharmacy to pick up her morphine she spots her daughter Coco across the street. Elisabeth wonders whether to tell Coco her news. They haven’t seen each other for a while and it may be a little awkward – not quite the moment – but heeding her doctor’s exhortations she hails Coco and after a desultory exchange blurts it out. Coco is only a little nonplussed, cycling off strangely pleased with the drama of her news and how important it makes her feel. Elisabeth carries on. This exchange sets the tone for Gerritsen’s unsettling, powerful novel. Coco spills the beans to her stepmother and father, Wilbert, with whom she spent most of her childhood; uses her news to manipulate her middle-aged boyfriend; then decides she should move in to look after her mother, more as an act of defiance aimed at Wilbert than from a desire to care for Elisabeth. As her mother deteriorates, so Coco becomes increasingly chaotic.

Gerritsen threads Elisabeth’s memories in and out of Coco’s unravelling and her own decline: her decision to lock the eighteen-month-old Coco in her room as means of protecting the furniture; Coco’s plunge through a glass screen door, aged five, and her own odd reaction to it; her detached ability to scan the rhythms of Wilbert’s remarks during sex. It’s never quite clear whether Elisabeth has Asperger’s but neither social skills nor empathy are amongst her strong points. While she’s always been at ease with her picture-framing colleagues, family life and marriage have proved to be something of an emotional minefield. Meanwhile Coco tries to fill her own gaping void with food, rough sex with strangers and the self-importance gained from the emotional drama playing out at home. No one manages to connect with anyone else in this fractured family – Elisabeth’s most satisfying relationship is with her boss. Not an easy read, then, but certainly a striking one handled with great skill. I’ll be interested to see what World Editions comes up with next.