‘The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat & Other Stories from the North’, Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson (eds.) (Review)

After our trip to Iceland earlier this week, you’d be forgiven for expecting today’s post to be taking us somewhere a little warmer.  However, this week’s theme is Nordic fiction, and my latest post widens the scope, taking us on a leisurely trip through a number of different northern nations and territories.  Sit back and enjoy the ride (there’s some beautiful scenery out there), but before we go, one last reminder – whatever  you do, don’t forget to wrap up warm 😉

The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat & Other Stories from the North is Pushkin Press’s attempt to showcase shorter fiction from the Nordic region and show that there’s more to literature from the north than grumpy detectives and fjord-loads of corpses.  In a conversational foreword, editors Ted Hodgkinson and Sjón (yep, him again…) discuss what connects the countries of the region, and while Sjón reveals that writers aren’t always happy to be asked this question repeatedly, he remarks:

But what they also share, apart from this grounding in social awareness, is the need to tell a good story (melancholic, absurd or grim as it may be) with means both tested and newly invented.  Because who has the patience to read a tale from small places at the edge of the globe or on the margins of communities if it isn’t told with wit – dark and dry, of course, we are Nordic – precision and restrained empathy for its characters?
p.12 (Pushkin Press, 2017)

Who indeed?  Let’s see how the actual stories measure up to these claims.

As was the case with my recent Icelandic adventure, this collection contains stories by several familiar faces.  In addition to a couple of short pieces from Dorthe Nors and Kristín Ómarsdóttir, there’s Naja Marie Aidt’s ‘Sunday’ (translated by Denise Newman and taken from the collection Baboon), a weekend stroll with a messy, disjointed, possibly happy family.

However, of the pieces by these old friends, two wonderfully bizarre tales stand out.  The first is Linda Boström Knausgaard’s ‘The White-Bear King Valemon’ (tr. Martin Aitken), an epic tale of a girl’s decision to leave home and her subsequent travels with a bear-man.  The other is Hassan Blasim’s “Don’t kill me, I beg you.  This is my tree.” (tr. Jonathan Wright), in which an immigrant bus driver (an Iraqi with a shady past) is haunted by a passenger reminding him of his former misdeeds.

Of course, as fun as it is to read more by familiar writers, part of the joy of collections like these lies in discovering new names.  One writer I hadn’t previously encountered was Per Olov Enquist, and ‘The Man in the Boat’ (tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner) is a beautifully written tale.  It begins with two boys making a raft and eventually deciding to set out on the lake in the middle of the night, where an accident leads to an encounter with a stranger in a boat:

The rowing boat then slowly moved off, so imperceptibly I didn’t understand what was happening at first.  But the man had sat down, sat down at the oars.  And started to row.  Håkan sat in the stern, his back to me, and he didn’t move, didn’t look at me.  The man started to row, and the boat slowly disappeared in the darkness.
‘The Man in the Boat’, p.25

Found and brought to safety the next day, the boy wonders who the man was, and where his friend is now.

Another slightly nostalgic piece is Frode Grytten’s ‘1974’ (tr. Diane Oatley), in which a fifteen-year-old boy on a long summer break watches as a flashy interloper comes between his parents. The narrator is older, looking back on his childhood, reflecting not only on his parents’ issues but also on lost love and what might have been.  There’s more than a nod to a certain other Norwegian writer here (who is actually slightly younger than Grytten), but it’s very well done and one of the more memorable pieces in the collection.

A different, but equally excellent, approach is that taken by Madame Nielsen.  Her piece ‘The Author Himself’ (tr. Aitken) describes a young man’s sudden obsession with Danish writer Peter Høeg, and over twelve pages of lengthy, complex sentences and meta-fictional musings, the narrator decides to hitch his wagon to the famous author’s star, with questionable results…

It’s a slightly confusing story in some ways, and it’s far from the only one.  For example, Rosa Liksom’s ‘A World Apart’ (tr. David Hackston) features seventeen vignettes connected only by their first-person point-of-view and a multitude of everyday disasters:

Did you eat any of those grapes?  Carrots?  Goodness me, you hardly eat a thing, you’ll waste away.  Just think, you’re almost three years old and you’re still that small.  You’ll never turn into a big girl if you carry on like that.  Do you want to be like Mummy one day?  If you do, then you’d better start eating properly.  Don’t you worry, us girls will be just fine, even though Daddy left us and went off with that bitch.
‘A World Apart’, p.78

Then there’s ‘The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat’ by Johan Bargum (tr. Sarah Pollard), in which a young man is summoned to New York to visit his father – who has apparently turned into a dog…

Another feature of the collection is its success in covering all the Nordic countries, not just the usual suspects.  There’s a fascinating extract from Ice (tr. Thomas Teal), a novel by Ulla-Lena Lundberg from the Åland Islands, as well as a strange series of short texts in Sigbjørn Skåden’s ‘Notes from a Backwoods Saami Core’ (translated by the author).  Perhaps my favourite contribution from the smaller countries, though, was Faroese writer Sólrún Michelsen’s ‘Some People Run in Shorts’ (tr. Marita Thomsen), in which a woman keeps noticing a man running in circles – and becomes frantic when she realises that he’s been at it for days.

The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat…, then, is a book that takes us all round the frozen north, and beyond, and a perfect illustration of this is the penultimate story by Greenlandic writer Niviaq Korneliussen, whose novel Homo Sapienne, reviewed here, is out in May 2018 in English under the title Crimson.  In ‘San Francisco’ (tr. Charlotte Barslund), a young woman is shattered when she receives a call saying her girlfriend, whom she had thrown out the night before, has been killed in an accident.  The woman suddenly finds herself on a journey to San Francisco, only gradually recalling what happened and why she’s on the road – and her reasons for choosing that particular destination…

‘San Francisco’ is an entertaining story from a new Nordic voice, and a perfect example of the variety of stories that exist across the north, but it’s just one of eighteen stories from nine different regions included here.  Overall, The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat… is a wonderful collection and would make the perfect travel companion for anyone yearning for an armchair excursion.  More importantly, perhaps, it may also serve as an introduction to more writers you might want to (re)acquaint yourself with in the coming years 🙂


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