I chose to purchase Cora Sandel’s The Leech for my Reading the World project, as she is an author whom has been on my radar for an awfully long time, but whose books appear to be few and far between. I had originally thought that I would start with the Alberta trilogy which Sandel is arguably most famous for, but The Leech was the most easily available of her books to me through Abebooks, and so I plumped for it as what I hoped would be a good introduction to her work. The only other person who has reviewed it on Goodreads also compared it to Virginia Woolf, so of course it was almost inevitable that I was going to begin with this one.
The Leech was first published in Norway in 1958, and in the United Kingdom two years later. This particular translation has been wonderfully rendered by Elizabeth Rakkan, and printed by The Women’s Press. Interestingly, we do not meet the woman, Dondi, whom the story revolves around until almost the end of the work. She is relatively young, and left her home in southern Norway to head to a small town within the Arctic Circle in order to marry. The Leech begins ten years after Dondi’s decision has been made, and things have not turned out quite as she was expecting them to. Her writer husband, Gregor, is less than famous, her twin children Bella and Beppo are rebellious, and she is ‘miserable to the point of hysteria’. Added to this, Gregor’s extended family see Dondi as the reason why he has not quite realised his full potential as a writer; they believe that she has sapped his talent pool dry.
The Leech takes place over two days in Midsummer, and from the beginning, Sandel sets the scene perfectly: ‘The veranda doors were open to the radiant North Norwegian summer: a summer which heaps light upon light, shining and brittle, only to fade too soon’. The majority of the prose takes place within conversations; it opens with Lagerta speaking to her grandmother, who is berating everything modern, from jazz music to motorcycles. She is grimly comic and belligerent, most fulfilled when she has something to complain about, and somebody to argue her points against. She is shrewd, and notices everything, telling her granddaughter the following in the opening passage: ‘”But you Lagerta, are over-nervous, my dear. You must have something in your hands all the time. You can’t rest any more, don’t think I haven’t noticed it. One can simply get too tired.”‘
Gregor’s brother, Jonas, acts with his aunt Lagerta and his great-grandmother as a voice of reason in the novel. We learn an awful lot about Dondi, and her relationship with Gregor, but our view of her is always through their disapproving eyes until she appears in the flesh. She has very little agency; until she is given a voice of her own, our interpretation of her is negatively biased, and when she is allowed her say, she is forever being fussed over and ordered around somewhat by those around her. Whilst Dondi is always the focus of their speech, the characters do become protagonists in the piece through Sandel’s clever and effective prose techniques. Lagerta particularly describes how she has had to live through and adapt to a changing world; she is a thoroughly three-dimensional being, and the most realistic character in the book.
The geographical isolation of the family is best described by Lagerta, when she states: ‘”Coming up here was a violent experience… I don’t know what to compare it with – being killed and slowly coming alive again. I was not myself for a while…”‘. The relationships which Sandel draws are complex and interesting, and the homestead in the middle of nowhere exacerbates the fact that they have few other people for company outside of the familial base.
Sadly, and undeservedly, The Leech has fallen by the wayside. Using Goodreads as a marker, it has had only a few ratings, and one review other than mine. There is a marvellous flow to the whole thanks to Rakkan’s translation. The Leech is a wonderful read, full of interesting and important points about the state of the world and a woman’s place within it, and great writing. If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a book which I would certainly recommend.