5

‘An Ode to Darkness’ by Sigri Sandberg ****

I had not heard of the Norwegian bestseller An Ode to Darkness before I spotted it in the library.  I was intrigued by the title, and decided to borrow it, keen as I am to read about all manner of non-fiction topics.  In this, a series of five short essays, Sigri Sandberg ‘explores our intimate relationship with the dark: why we are scared of it, why we need it and why the ever-encroaching light is damaging our well-being.’

0751578649Sandberg lives between northern Norway and Oslo.  In An Ode to Darkness, she ‘meditates on the cultural, historical, psychological and scientific meaning of the darkness, all the while testing the limits of her own fear.’  The book covers a trip which she made alone to her family’s isolated cabin in Finse, and spans the five days of her visit.  The cabin is situated in the mountains, almost 200 kilometres northwest of Oslo.  She decided to embark on her trip in order to ‘seek out natural darkness, knowledge and the night sky – and to see how long I dare stay.’  Her ‘all-consuming fear’ of the dark is exacerbated when she is isolated and alone, and so spending days in a secluded cabin was a real challenge for Sandberg.  She was keen to get to the stage where she could ‘be there without someone to hold me when darkness falls.’

In Finse, Sandberg is highly isolated; there are no roads into the village, and the nearest shop is located miles away from her cabin.  During the winter, which is when she visits, her closest neighbour is elsewhere, and she really learns what it means to be alone.  When she first arrives, Sandberg writes: ‘Even though I’m doing this of my own free will, I’m dreading the darkness so much that I can feel it in my chest and down in my feet.  It hurts.  I know the darkness will envelop me, not gently, but hard…  I can feel it in my bones…’.

Sandberg begins An Ode to Darkness by posing a somewhat poignant question: ‘When did you last see the stars?’  I lived in Glasgow for three years, and moved to London last year; both cities are polluted and often cloudy, and one can often only make out the stars if they travel beyond the suburbs.  I know completely what Sandberg means when she writes: ‘If you live in a city and look out of the window, there will be a greyish-yellow haze between you and the Milky Way.  Even if it is night.  Even if it is winter.’  This drowns out completely the ability to see stars.

Sandberg questions, in her introduction, what so much artificial light is doing to us, to our ‘sleep patterns and rhythms and bodies’.  She includes some rather startling facts; that sleep disorders are on the rise, that there are hardly any places in the world which are not now polluted by artificial light, and that sixty percent of Europeans and eighty percent of North Americans cannot see the stars where they live.  She muses upon definitions of what truly constitutes the night, our sleep and its effects, hibernation, mental health, and dreams and nightmares.  She then goes on to discuss the history of human relationships with darkness; we have always seen it as ‘an enemy, like the cold, something unsafe – and light was by definition good.’

Throughout An Ode to Darkness, Sandberg writes of others who have ventured into the dark, for various reasons.  Of particular interest to her is the story of Christiane Ritter who, in 1934, went to join her husband, who was working as a trapper on Svålbard.  This small group of islands is found halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.  Here, Ritter experienced constant winter darkness, as well as constant daylight during the summer months, and fell in love with the place.  Christiane’s story, which has recently been translated into English, is threaded throughout the book, and provides both similarities and contrasts to Sandberg’s own experiences.  I love the way in which Christiane’s story runs parallel to her own; it adds a lot of depth to what would otherwise be a brief, and potentially a very singular, memoir.

First published in 2019, and translated into English by Siân Mackie, An Ode to Darkness is a book which I would highly recommend.  It is the first book specifically about darkness which I have read, but it certainly gave me the push to think about darkness, and my own experiences within it.

Sandberg expresses, quite beautifully, why we need the darkness in our lives.  Her approach – to spend five days in an isolated cabin in Norway’s north, and then to write about it – is simple, yet highly effective.  An Ode to Darkness is highly readable, and faultlessly translated.  She reaches her goal, to ‘make sense of the dark’, and helps us, the reader, to do the same.

2

‘The Palace of the Snow Queen’ by Barbara Sjoholm *****

‘A Frequent traveler to Northern Europe, Barbara Sjoholm set off one winter to explore a region that had long intrigued her. Sjoholm first travels to Kiruna, Sweden, to see the Icehotel under construction and to meet the ice artists who make its rooms into environmental art. Traveling to the North Cape, she encounters increasing darkness and cold, but also radiant light over the mountains and snow fields. She crosses the Finnmark Plateau by dogsled, attends a Sami film festival (with an outdoor ice screen), and visits Santa’s Post Office in Finland. Over the course of three winters, Sjoholm unearths the region’s rich history, including the culture of the Sami. As Sjoholm becomes more familiar with Kiruna, she writes of the changes occurring in northern Scandinavia and contemplates the tensions between tourism, the expansion of mining and development of the Ice Hotel, and age-old patterns of land use, the Sami’s struggle to maintain their reindeer grazing lands and migration routes.’

I was incredibly excited to read Barbara Sjoholm’s The Palace of the Snow Queen, in which she spends several winters in the Arctic Circle.  Sjoholm’s entire account is vivid and fascinating; she brings to light so many elements of life in the far north, always with the utmost sensitivity for those who live there.  9781593761592

Throughout, Sjoholm writes about the Sami, tourism, custom and tradition, the Icehotel in Sweden, and ways to travel around, amongst a plethora of other things.  She strongly demonstrates just how quickly times change, and how some centuries-old traditions are being dropped in favour of the necessity of tourism.

Everything has been so well researched here, not only with regard to her own experiences, but with insight by others who have explored the region in years past.  Her narrative voice is incredibly engaging, and I learnt so much from her account.  It was the perfect tome to read over the Christmas period, and has extended my wanderlust even further.  The Palace of the Snow Queen is undoubtedly one of the best travelogues which I have ever read, and is a sheer transportative joy to settle down with during long winters’ nights.

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Two Reviews: ‘A World Gone Mad’, and ‘What Was Lost’

A World Gone Mad by Astrid Lindgren ****
9781782272311Astrid Lindgren’s wartime diaries, which only became available to the public in 2013, have been translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.  It is fascinating to view the Second World War from the perspective of a housewife – and later an incredibly writer, publishing her beloved Pippi Longstocking close to the war’s end – in a neutral country; thus far, I have largely read accounts like this one from either Western of Eastern Europe, and a Northern perspective was rather refreshing.

It goes without saying that Lindgren writes incredibly well, and the translation has been handled both competently and admiringly.  Many of the entires are rather short, and not every day is covered, but the whole is perhaps all the more compelling for it.  Lindgren discusses what has happened in the wider world at any given time, as well as closer to home; how rationing does not affect the Swedes, for instance, but all she has read from elsewhere is focused upon the shortages of even basic foodstuffs.  A great amount of emphasis is placed upon Scandinavia, and the effects upon it.  Lindgren’s diaries are a real joy to read.

 

What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn **** 9781906994259
O’Flynn has been on my radar for quite some time.  I was undecided about which book of hers I would begin with, and chose this only because my boyfriend had a copy of it (although he doesn’t know where it came from, it must be said).  From the very beginning, I did like Kate’s character; she intrigued me.  I definitely preferred the sections which included her to those with Lisa and Kate, et al.; whilst in retrospect I can see that they were pivotal to the plot, they failed to come to life for me in quite the same way.  What Was Lost is well written and well pieced together; I’m surprised it’s a novel which hasn’t been more hyped up, if I’m honest.

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Reading the World: Scandinavia (Part One)

I adore Scandinavia, and was very excited about choosing books to showcase this beautiful region, which, for my purposes, is comprised of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland.  I have read a lot of literature, and some non-fiction books, set here, and it was so incredibly difficult to narrow down my choices that I have decided to show them in two parts.  There are some comprehensive reviews floating around on the blog for the majority of these, which I have linked.  So sit back, relax, and read about Scandinavia…

1. The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson 9781908745330(Finland; review here)
‘Tove Jansson’s first book for adults drew on her childhood memories to capture afresh the enchantments and fears of growing up in Helsinki in the nineteen tens and twenties. Described as both a memoir and ‘a book of superb stories’ by Ali Smith, her startlingly evocative prose offers a glimpse of the mysteries of winter ice, the bonhomie of balalaika parties, and the vastness of Christmas viewed from beneath the tree.’

2. The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen (Somewhere in Scandinavia; review here)
‘This is a story about a snow-covered island you won’t find on any map. It’s the story of a girl, Minou. A year ago, her mother walked out into the rain and never came back. It’s about a magician and a priest and a dog called No Name. It’s about a father’s endless hunt for the truth. It’s about a dead boy who listens, and Minou’s search for her mother’s voice. It’s a story of how even the most isolated places have their own secrets. It’s a story you will never forget.’

97818435458353. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida (Finland)
‘When Clarissa Iverton was fourteen years old, her mother disappeared leaving Clarissa to be raised by her father. Upon his death, Clarissa, now twenty-eight, discovers he wasn’t her father at all. Abandoning her fiance, Clarissa travels from New York to Helsinki, and then north of the Arctic Circle – to Lapland. There, under the northern lights, Clarissa not only unearths her family’s secrets, but also the truth about herself.’

4. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Iceland; review here)
‘A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829. Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Toti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.’

5. Naive. Super by Erlend Loe (Norway) 9781841956725
‘Troubled by an inability to find any meaning in his life, the 25-year-old narrator of this deceptively simple novel quits university and eventually arrives at his brother’s New York apartment. In a bid to discover what life is all about, he writes lists. He becomes obsessed by time and whether it actually matters. He faxes his meteorologist friend. He endlessly bounces a ball against the wall. He befriends a small boy who lives next door. He yearns to get to the bottom of life and how best to live it. Funny, friendly, enigmatic and frequently poignant – superbly naive.’

6. When I Forgot by Elina Hirvonen (Finland)
‘Anna is on her way to the hospital where her brother has been sectioned. But – on route – she falters, and her world splinters into a blazing display of memory and madness fueled by her family’s psychological disintegration.’

97819086702437. The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gohril Gabrielsen (Norway; review here)
‘A tragic love story about two sisters who cannot live with or without each other. Far out on the plains of northern Norway stands a house. It belongs to two middle-aged sisters. They seldom venture out and nobody visits. The older needs nursing and the younger keeps house. Then, one day, a man arrives…’

 

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‘The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia’ by Michael Booth ****

In The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandavian Utopia, Michael Booth, who has lived in the region for over a decade, ’embarks on a journey through all five of the Nordic countries to discover who these curious tribes are, the secrets of their success and, most intriguing of all, what they think of each other’.  A crossover work which can be categorised as both travel and humour, The Almost Nearly Perfect People has been incredibly well received since its publication in 2014.

Booth found himself utterly perplexed ‘by their many strange and paradoxical character traits and equally bemused by the unquestioning enthusiasm for all things Nordic that has engulfed the rest of the world’.  On his journey into the psyche of all of the Nordic countries, he discovers, amongst other things, that Scandinavia ‘is a region plagued by taboos… and populated by extremists of various shades’; quite at odds with the ideal which we in the West largely hold.

Booth decided to begin writing The Almost Nearly Perfect People when, sitting in his home in Copenhagen, he was confronted by an article which professed that the Danes were the happiest race in the world.  His first thought was, ‘Well, they are doing an awfully good job of hiding it’.  Further reflection warranted an exploration into how such a statement could be true.  In his acerbic, amusing style, Booth began his study by recounting ‘the previous day’s soul-sapping adventures in my recently adopted homeland’.  We, the readers, are taken along on Booth’s journey: ‘So let us begin our quest to unearth the truth about the Nordic miracle, and where better to start than at a party’.

The book has been split into five sections, each of which corresponds to a particular Scandinavian country.  Each of these  is further divided into short chapters, which deal with a particular aspect of life.  Throughout, Booth fills one in on aspects of contemporary life in Scandinavia, and in doing so covers a lot of details which are of interest: a visit to Denmark’s parliament building; particular foodstuffs which appeal in various regions; folklore and its importance within Iceland; the rivalry between different countries; and the perception of Swedish people in Finland, ‘commonly thought of as gay’.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People is a fascinating, thoughtful and well-crafted romp, which brings together both factual information and common misconceptions about Scandinavia.  It is a must-read for anyone interested in the region, and is the perfect book to dip in and out of whilst travelling.

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