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Sara Stridsberg: Kärlekens Antarktis (Antarctica of Love)

There are already quite a few novels on this site where the narrator is dead but this may be the most poignant. Our dead narrator is Kristine. A Swedish woman who really has not had a good life. When we first meet her, she is on her way to her death with the man who is going to murder her. She knows that he is going to kill her and she is not too concerned about it. I think I know what you want,” he had said. “I think I can give it to you.” He was talking about death, but I didn’t realise at the time. However, as she states this was a world I didn’t want to live in anyway and I longed for the sound of the coffin lid closing above me, for everything finally silenced. No birds, no sky, no light, no escape.

She had been born to Raksha and Ivan who were not particularly good parents and, by the time of her death, long since separated, though not formally divorced. They both drank heavily and, in later life, Raksha will spend her time popping pills. As well as Kristine, they had a son, Eskil. Eskil looked to Kristine, rather than his drunken parents for help and comfort. One day, the two went swimming. Kristine could swim well and dived down to look for beaver lodges, keeping an eye on Eksil when she resurfaced. On one occasion, he had disappeared. She searched in vain. She ran to her parents and, eventually, the body of Eksil was found. He was rushed to hospital but it was too late.

Her parents eventually separated and, after the age of fifteen, Kristine did not see Ivan again. She was often unhappy but, while still at school found solace with a friend, Nanna, who supplied her with heroin. There is somewhere else, an outside, with more room, or a truer place, a paradise that can rise up inside me at any moment, and it is the place I have been looking for all this time is how she describes her heroin fix.

She has her own relationship problems. She meets Shane and they have a son, Valle (short for Valentino). They decide to get married. She is pregnant at the time. By the time Solveig is born, the marriage is on the rocks. She puts Solveig up for adoption, knowing that she can never see her again. Eventually, Valle is taken away from her and fostered out to various people.

We learn all of the sad details of her life after her death as she gradually tells us them, including, in some detail, her murder and what the murderer did with her body. However, what makes this book interesting is what happens after her death. She says you die three times. In her case it was when he was murdered and then when her remains were buried. The third time will be the last time my name is spoken on earth. And so I am waiting for it to happen.

However, till the last time her name is spoken, she is still alive in spirit if not in the flesh. Two things happen as a result. The first is that she examines what happened in her life. Some of it I have already mentioned. In other cases she examines her own behaviour but also that of other close to her. Sometimes she is critical, particularly of herself, sometimes less so. She was critical of her parents – the only worthwhile thing they did for her, she says, was giving her a baby brother. She is critical but only mildly of her drug habit. It did help her escape a world she could not really cope with. And, as for Shane, neither of us was particularly good at anything.

However the other feature of her post-mortem life is that she can see what is going on with the people she knows. This includes, of course her children and her parents but it also includes the murderer. She wonders if her children think of her and how they are managing to cope with life and follows them over a period of years. And this is what hell is, watching your children live on without you. She also follows both her parents and their struggles. The murderer deliberately leaves clues and as his wife says, he becomes an empty shell.

No-one in this book has a happy life, often through poor choices but also because of incompetent parents. Kristine is a drug addict, a prostitute and irresponsible but still a loving if inadequate sister and mother. Having two drunkards as parents clearly was a key feature and partially explains why she gave up her daughter for adoption, so that she would have a better chance in life.

Her harrowing tale of her afterlife, from the description of the murder and what the murderer subsequently did to her remote viewing of what her family did are superbly told by Stridsberg and while we may feel that Kristine was far from perfect (at least we did our best comments Shane to which she responds In that case, Shane, our best was lousy) we very much feel for her as a person and her sad ending.

First published in 2018 by Bonniers
First English translation in 2019 by Maclehose Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner