I just recently decided that since I am working on getting back to writing in Swedish, I should in fact also read in Swedish. Now, for one who has almost exclusively been reading fiction in English for the past ten-fifteen years, this quite honestly didn’t seem too appealing. But, I though, I used to enjoy literature in Swedish as well. There are good Swedish authors after all, plenty of them. And I need to get back into the Swedish mind-set.
And so I went to the bookstore in search of a novel. I wanted historical fiction, preferably centered around the 18th century, and I wanted Swedish to be the original language. Why? Because I have a general dislike of translations.
Barnbruden by Anna Laestadius Larsson caught my eye. As I picked it up, a store clerk sighed happily and said “Ooh that one, it’s so good!”
Well alright. It fit the bill. Swedish, check. 18th century, check. Good reviews, right? Worth a shot.
If you haven’t guessed it yet, this review is not a positive one.
Where do I begin… Ah, the dialogue. In her attempt at having the characters speak and think in a poetic and historical fashion, the author has managed writing speech in a way that most often feels far removed from any realistic portrayal of actual people. That alone really is not too big a problem, though. But combine that with characters that to a large extent seem as two dimensional as cardboard cut-outs and the result is not a happy one.
There are instances where character development and growth are attempted, like when the main character, Charlotta, temporarily falls for the temptation of dulling her pain with alcohol and gambling, or when Sophie struggles to come to terms with life as a housewife in charge of a kitchen. Or for that matter when Charlotta i left by the lover she has been passionately in love with, or when the Queen is faced with the shameful insight that the reason why she hasn’t managed getting pregnant is that the King has been using the wrong hole, and another man is brought in to show the King where to put it. These moments, these challenges, that could have been ripe with opportunities for personal growth, are passed by as quickly as possible. Is there a budding alcoholism? Not to worry, that passes as quickly as it came, seemingly without any effort or consequence. As a result, the difficulties met by the characters seem as no more than superficial tools used by the author to show how well they can fight their way through misery, how strong these women are.
And there we touch on the next issue I want to mention. Undoubtedly life was hard for women in the 18th century. Undoubtedly they were treated as inferior to men, there was systematic discrimination and abuse commonplace. Unfortunately it would seem as Laestadius focuses so much on showing this brutal reality, that it tips over heavily into sensationalism.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have no issue with graphic descriptions of violence, or even of sexual abuse, when it is justified and well written. I do not however like to be whacked over the head with yet another rape scene when it seems to be there for the sole purpose of making the reader gasp at how terrible everything is.
The feminist agenda runs through the novel from start to finish. Which, one might think, should be a good thing. Sadly it is done so clumsily that the whole thing feels a bit like a large piece of propaganda. Male characters are all abusive, bordering on insane, or womanizers. Female characters are all almost exclusively victims of the patriarchy, while being clever, beautiful, modern, and most importantly good. Male characters only think of furthering their power or satisfying their lust. Female characters are interested in philosophy, charity, love and literature. A man who is cheating on his wife is ridiculed as a horndog. A wife cheating on her husband is strong and and rightfully looking to her own pleasure. The difference in how male and female characters are created, and how they are portrayed, couldn’t be more obvious. They come across as stereotypes created to serve a political purpose, not as believable characters.
Do I have nothing good to say about this book? Well, the actual historical figures that lie behind are absolutely fascinating, I’ll give you that. But as literature goes, I wouldn’t recommend it.