‘The Ravens’ by Tomas Bannerhed (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 7)

IMG_2040The fun times in Berlin (with a man who is no laughing matter) have been left behind, and our IFFP journey has taken a more rural turn.  We’ve arrived in the Swedish countryside to spend a year with a young boy, one with some special interests and a lot of pressure on his young shoulders.  I hope you’re all well rested – this is an isolated farming community, and everyone’s expected to pitch in…

The Ravens by Tomas Bannerhed – The Clerkenwell Press (translated by Sarah Death)
What’s it all about?
Twelve-year-old Klas is a bright young boy obsessed with nature in general, and the migration patterns of birds in particular.  He’s intelligent and enjoys school, but he prefers spending time alone in the woods and fields, watching out for the latest winged arrivals from foreign lands.  When Veronika, an older girl from the big city, moves to his area, though, life takes on an altogether new aspect.

The enjoyable side of his life is overshdowed, though, by the figure of his father, Agne.  This is a family which has farming in its veins, with the farm having been passed down from father to son for generations, and the unspoken expectation that Klas will follow suit is slowly beginning to weigh the young boy down.  If only this were the only problem – the truth is that farming isn’t the only thing in the family’s blood which the men are destined to inherit…

With a couple of exceptions, the IFFP longlisted books have looked fairly light, much lighter than I might have expected (or wanted), but if you’re looking for full-on, thought-provoking literary fiction, then The Ravens is a book for you.  This is the kind of novel I hope to find on these lists, and while fifteen works of this intensity might prove overpowering, I’d be more than happy to give it a try 😉

Bannerhed’s debut novel is an excellent portrait of a young boy on the verge of adolescence, one who’s being pushed to grow up fast.  He’s sensitive and intelligent, fascinated by science and the natural world, poring over books in his hunger for knowledge.  While he cuts a generally sympathetic figure, his peers find him a little odd, and the reader also has their suspicions that there’s something more to the boy and his family.

When we meet the father, we understand what the issues are.  This is a man slowly going mad, gradually being torn apart by the pressure of continuing the family farm:

“He stood there by the well, scanning the fields.  The saw had fallen silent and the seed drill was full.  For arable land or pasture?  I couldn’t tell the difference.  Maybe he was thinking that he’d had to do it all himself again this year, that I’d refused to come and help.
     That nobody – “
p.31 (The Clerkenwell Press, 2014)

The family try their best to support him, but in the end they can only stand by and watch as the breadwinner spirals ever further into depression.

One of the strengths of the novel is the portrayal of Klas’ relationship with his father.  It’s an ambiguous, uncertain sort of love they share, with neither able to open up fully to the other.  Although Klas loves his father, he also fears him a little, not because of any impending physical threat, but because of the strange behaviour the farmer is beginning to display.  In truth, though, the boy is simply unable to understand how his father ticks:

“What are you thinking about, Father, I felt like asking.  Sitting there like that.  Are you thinking about your arms rising up all by themselves in the cow shed?  The weather, never anything but a worry?  The scrap pile, calling to you night and day?  Everything that needs doing back home and you’re never finished?  About the fact that it’s a leap year with thirteen moons this year?
     The never-ending toil.
     Is that what you’re thinking about now?
     Work and illness.  Everything that’s against you.” (p.78)

It gradually dawns on Klas that what he’s seeing is a glimpse into his own future…

There’s a welcome distraction on the horizon, though, in the shape of Veronika.  A new arrival IMG_5187from the big city, she’s fashionable and uncaring, exuding pheromones in a way Klas has never experienced before.  The boy sees her as a window into the outside world, and a chance to get away from his home troubles.  However, even here, things are not as they seem; the more he gets to know Veronika and her family, the more Klas realises that he’s not the only one with issues.

The Ravens is a wonderful read – like the marshes scattered around the family farm, it sucks you in and doesn’t let you go.  Almost every page contains beautiful descriptive writing of the nature around, immersing the reader in the setting.  For the habitual city dweller, it’s an education in birds, trees, fields and insects, many of which I’d never heard of before.  I suspect the poor translator had to do a lot of research for this book – all I can say is that it was well worth it 🙂

The novel is imbued with palpable tension, aided by the contrast of styles.  The relaxing scenes in the fields and woods are interspersed with the tense kitchen-table passages, passages which have the reader constantly on edge.  For those who have read it, there are parallels here with Knausgaard’s Boyhood Island in the portrayal of a father-son relationship, especially in the way that the young boy can do nothing about it all, and suffers accordingly.  However, for me, at least, this book is much better – it’s a Bildungsroman of the highest quality.

If I had to sum it up, I’d call it a haunting story of mental illness, growing up and the beauty and majesty of nature.  The story pulls you on, unavoidably, and each chapter contains tranquility and terror in equal measure:

     “Listen,” was Father’s next word.  “listen to those devils -“
    It was his feeble hollow voice.  Mum frowned.
     “What is it, Agne?  What are we meant to be hearing?”
     He was breathing heavily through his nose, squeezing his ears tightly shut and rocking back and forth with his big hands pressed to his ears.
     “The ravens,” he said with an effort.  “The ravens, for God’s sake!(p.289)

Read it.

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Oh, yes.  For me, this one deserves to be up there at the very end, fighting it out for the main prize.  It’s definitely one of my favourites so far 🙂

Will it make the shortlist?
I think it’s got a good chance.  In addition to the Boyhood Island parallels, there’s a lot in the style and setting which reminds me of the 2013 winner, Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour (tr. David Colmer) – surely that’s a good sign?

It’s getting a bit chilly here in Sweden, so it’s time to move on once more, preferably to warmer climes.  Let’s leave Europe for a while and head down a little closer to the Equator.  I know a house that’s vacant at the moment, a big place right by the sea – Colombia, here we come 🙂

5 thoughts on “‘The Ravens’ by Tomas Bannerhed (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 7)

  1. I am just a few chapters into this and enjoying it so far. I like the clean prose and, as a long time bird watcher, I love the birds. I will be curious to see how the mental illness component is handled. I am a hyper critical reader in this regard having much professional and personal experience with mental illness myself.

    I suspect that my personal favourite from the list will be While the Gods Were Sleeping, another offering with substantial literary weight. I agree that, although many of the titles are enjoyable they do seem a little light.


  2. So you quite liked it then? Overall, on balance, positive?

    Are the ravens a metaphor for depression do you think, or is that too literal (just asked the same question at Rough’s).


    1. Max – Definitely a book I’d recommend 🙂 As for the ravens, they play a surprisingly small role, but I’d agree that they’re a symbol of both depression and disaster (a rather obvious one, really…).


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