It’s always welcome when another intrepid publisher appears in the world of fiction in translation, and today’s review sees my first encounter with one of those brave presses, World Editions. The book itself is a short, powerful novella, one which hasn’t got the press it deserves as far as I can tell – surprising, considering the bearded Norwegian elephant lurking in the corner of the room. But I digress…
Linda Boström Knausgård’s The Helios Disaster (translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, review copy courtesy of the publisher) begins with a bang, a story born of blood:
I am born of a father. I split his head. For an instant that is as long as life itself we face one another and look each other in the eye. You are my father, I tell him with my eyes. My father. The person in front of me, standing in the blood on the floor, is my father, His woollen socks suck it up greedily and turn red. The blood sinks into the worn wooden floor and I think, his eyes are green like mine.
p.9 (World Editions, 2015)
A modern Athena, born from the head of her father, the girl emerges as a twelve-year-old, fully-clad in armour, before shedding her clothes and heading off into the Swedish snow (wearing only a helmet). She is found by a neighbour and taken to the authorities, eventually ending up fostered out to a family.
After such a dramatic start, there’s little chance of Anna, as she is called by her new carers, settling down to a quiet life. With no memory of anything before the vivid scene which brought her into the world, she must learn to adapt to an ordinary life in the midst of a nice, God-fearing family – which makes the sudden discovery of her ability to speak in tongues even more disturbing. As those around her start to believe in miracles, Anna herself just longs to be reunited with Conrad, her father, who perhaps holds the key to her true origins…
The Helios Disaster is a story in two parts, the first taking us from Anna’s dramatic ‘birth’ up to an emotional evening in her local church, with the second describing the aftermath of her emotional breakdown. It’s a book which needs to be read in full before you get a true sense of what is happening, and even then there’s a sense that the writer is playing with the reader a little, never truly revealing how much of the story is real and how much the product of a disturbed mind.
You’d expect the foster family to be the calming influence of the story, but even here there’s a feeling that everything is slightly off-kilter. Birgitta and Sven, and their sons Ulf and Urban, welcome Anna into their home, introducing her to a life of temperance and churchgoing. It’s all rather sanitised, smacking of a Stepford-wives sort of existence, and it’s unsurprising that the kids rebel (albeit in a very civilised Swedish manner, with their parents’ tacit consent).
Anna herself is far more disturbing, though. While she arrives able to talk, think, and reason, there are certain gaps in her character, particularly in her ability to interact with others:
‘You’re a beautiful girl, you know. And with beauty comes certain privileges.’
Privileges? I thought. And I devoured the word from beginning to end.
‘Yes, advantages. It’s easy to be liked. Even if you have to make an effort.’
Make an effort, I thought, wiping my mouth with my napkin. (pp.24/5)
At times she can appear robotic, puzzling over words, acquiring meaning from the new input surrounding her. Certainly, she’s a hard person to warm to.
Of course, there may be a reason for this. As the book progresses, there’s an increasing sense that we’re being played, the writer using the first-person point-of-view to hide her true intentions, with the reader unable to fully trust Anna’s view of the world. She’s definitely a girl with issues, but this mythical birth (or rebirth) may be hiding something far more sinister. We suspect that her desire to reunite with her father, fuelled by the letters they exchange, might not be such a good idea…
Much of this is supported by the writing itself. Boström Knausgård begins with fairly sparse, spiky language, reflecting Anna’s tabula rasa state, which develops into far more elaborate, emotional writing as the story progresses. Gradually, Anna comes out of her emotional shell, releasing her feelings by screaming into the snow, until her hidden talent is finally revealed:
The words gushed forth; there was no beginning and no end to the words; they hung together and played with each other, drawing themselves out and pushing back inside my mouth. The whole church was full of them; they roared and rushed like the river, I thought, and it was as if I were viewing them from a distance and as if I could see how they played with one another. Biting one another and pushing away. Never before had I felt the way I did now, with the church full of words that came out of me, from the deepest parts of me. (p.42)
All credit to Willson-Broyles for her handling of this range of tones and styles, capturing the shift from the unemotional to passionate that Anna undergoes. While the story is intriguing, it’s the writing that really makes The Helios Disaster worth seeking out.
So, who is this writer, and why does the name sound so familiar? As many of you will no doubt have guessed, Boström Knausgård is married to Karl Ove Knausgaard, and while I wouldn’t normally focus on a writer’s hubby, there are several reasons to bring that up here. She is one of the major focuses of My Struggle 2: A Man in Love, and her character is sketched out there, with Knausi depicting his wife as a sensitive poet struggling with mental illness. Having read that book, it was impossible to ignore that information, particularly when the second half of the book took a dramatic, slightly unexpected twist.
All this merely adds to the interest of an already intriguing book, one which (to offer a comparison I hope will encourage people further) could have come straight out of the Peirene Press stable of novellas. There’s lots I could add here, but won’t for fear of affecting your enjoyment of the book, as part of its success is in making the reader question what they are told. Whether it’s a matter of myth or mental delusion is fairly unimportant – The Helios Disaster makes for a wonderful introduction to World Editions, and I hope I can find the time to try more of their offerings soon 🙂