I’ve been reading the books of Peirene Press pretty much since the press started, and while many things have changed in the world over the past decade or so, they’ve kept to the same simple model of three short thematically linked works of European fiction each year. Well, if it works…
This year we’re being treated to what Peirene are calling the Metamorphoses Series, and the first of these books has just appeared. We’re heading off to Sweden to meet a whole lot of characters whose lives are about to change, and not always for the better. Let’s see why, and what the local wildlife has to do with it all…
Andrea Lundgren’s Nordic Fauna (translated by John Litell, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a collection of six stories set in the north of Sweden. The book was the focus for last year’s Peirene Stevens Translation Prize, established to promote up-and-coming translators, and just like the previous winner (J. Ockenden’s translation of Claudio Morandini’s Snow, Dog, Foot), it’s an intriguing work with the landscape of the country featuring heavily in the stories.
This is especially true for ‘How Things Come to Seem’, a piece which sees a woman returning from a visit to her boyfriend’s place in the far north of the country. She’s deliberating over whether to move there with him, and the decision’s made difficult by her fear of nature, and also the silence of the forests:
In the forest it was different. There it wasn’t she who saw, but she who was seen. Never before had she faced such surveillance, thousandfold, impossible to comprehend. Her body became strange in its presence, began stretching and twisting this way and that. She tried instead to focus on the patches of sky that were visible above the path they followed, birds darting between treetops like arrows. Ants trying to climb up her shoes and inside her trouser legs.
‘How Things Come to Seem,’, p.71 (Peirene Press, 2021)
These thoughts occupy her mind on the ride home, a journey that takes a rather eerie turn when the train makes an unscheduled stop in the middle of a dark forest…
Several of the stories also revolve around relationships, of several kinds. In ‘The Girlfriend’, we’re trapped in an apartment with a woman so anxious about her partner’s absence she can’t think straight for hours before he’s due to come home, while ‘The Father Hole’ is an even darker take on dependence. This is a long piece in which a young girl’s annual trip to stay with her father becomes a nightmarish ordeal. She uses the company of imaginary animals to cope with what happens, and as the story spirals into nightmare territory, we find ourselves unsure as to how much is happening in her head and how much is horribly real.
The stories in Nordic Fauna tend to move along at their own pace, meaning it can take a while for the context of the story to become clear. Perhaps the best example of this is to be found in ‘The Cat’, where the discovery of a wounded animal by the side of the road becomes a catalyst for a family split:
On the same day that she and I buried the cat under the old willow tree, Mum moved up to the attic. Everything happened so suddenly, no one had a clue where she was.
‘The Cat’, p.50
The narrator, another young girl, is confused by what happens, feeling abandoned when her father and older brother form a bond. It’s only later that we are shown glimpses of the true reason for the mother’s decision, and again there’s a sense that it’s down to stark differences between men and women.
Of course, it’s not just children, or women, who struggle with life. ‘On the Nature of Angels’, a beautiful, slow story of a theology lecturer and his obsession with celestial beings, has the academic sleep-walking his way through an unfulfilling work life, and his desire to see angels, even if only in his dreams, is contrasted with the spiteful tricks someone is playing on him at work. There’s an almost palpable loneliness to the story, yet the protagonist is rendered sympathetically, with a hint of hope to end the story, and the collection.
It’s the opening piece, the longest in the collection, that’s probably my favourite, though. ‘The Bird that Cries in the Night’ begins with a man’s visits to his divorced parents, and as he chats with his outgoing mother and his far more reclusive father, the protagonist is forced to think about the direction his own life is taking:
“Do you think…” I begin, but I lose momentum.
“Do I think what?” Molly yawns.
“Do you think that there’s anyone living here who isn’t unhappy?”
“What the hell kind of a question is that?”
I turn to face her.
‘The Bird that Cries in the Night’, p.30
As he struggles to recall a pivotal event from his childhood, he appears to reach a turning point, eventually realising that it’s time for him to make changes before life passes him by.
Nordic Fauna is excellently paced and full of slow-burning stories that never rush the reader along. The pieces here are linked by the idea of characters at a crossroads, many of whom are lonely, introspective and turned in upon themselves, and there’s often a sudden realisation about past events, leading the protagonists to finally confront a long-repressed fear. Most of the stories are relatively long, but this works well, with Lundgren mastering the delicate art of building the story up carefully before both stopping at exactly the right point and leaving the reader wanting more.
Six stories might seem a tad meagre, but their length means that it feels like a full set, and it makes for a most enjoyable read, tales of pauses in life’s journey, with people reflecting before taking their next step. Peirene’s most recent short-story collection, Emmanuelle Pagano’s Faces on the Tip of My Tongue (tr. Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins) was longlisted for last year’s International Booker Prize, and you get the feeling that this one certainly wouldn’t be out of place on the 2021 list, either. With the longlist announcement on the 30th of March, we don’t have long to wait, and I, for one, would be more than happy to see it chosen 🙂