Sara Stridsberg: Beckomberga: Ode till min familj (Gravity of Love)
I suspect that, for most Swedes, the title in Swedish will be quite meaningful. It reads Beckomberga: Ode to My Family. Beckomberga was a large psychiatric hospital outside Stockholm, which closed down in 1995. Most of the novel is set there.
The subject of this novel is, of course, mental illness and, in particular, suicide. It is narrated by Jackie. Her father, Jim, threatens suicide several times during the book and spends some time as a patient at Beckomberga. Jim’s mother, Vita, also took her own life.
However, we start with Olof. We later learn that he has spent some sixty-three years as a patient in Beckomberga. He was admitted as a teenager and, initially, his mother visited him regularly. However, she stopped coming – Olof never learns why – and he is still waiting for her to resume her visits. He seems to put people off. He has the stamp of illness imprinted under his skin, visible to all apart from himself. Early in the book, he climbs up to the roof and throws himself out into the night with but one wish: that, even now, something will bear him aloft, a hand or a gust of wind; that something will sustain him in this world. Of course, it does not.
Jim is married to Lone. It is not a very happy marriage. Jim is a serial alcoholic, prescription drug abuser and a serial philanderer. He also frequently attempts suicide, though it is not clear whether he is serious or he is just doing it to attract attention. Lone finds him on more than one occasion with his head in the oven. Eventually, he is admitted to Beckomberga after one more suicide attempt but only after Lone has left him.
Jackie is his only regular visitor. At the time she is a teenager and she has to travel out to the hospital using a not very frequent bus service. Don’t you want to be well?, she asks her father. I don’t know what I want, he replies. His doctor is Edvard Winterson. Edvard is a somewhat unconventional – some might say irresponsible – doctor. He frequently take various patients, including Jim, out to all night parties. Both Edvard and Jim fall for another patient there, Sabina, something of a wild and unconventional woman. Feral, innocent, lawless is how Jim later describes her. She will later kill herself.
However, Jim wants to make it up with Lone but Lone is not interested. He tries blackmail, refusing to see Jackie unless she is accompanied by Lone. This does not work but nor does it deter Jackie from visiting. She merely talks to some of the other patients, including Sabina and Paul, a young man with whom she has a brief affair.
While we are following Jim’s stay at Beckomberga, we are also following later events. Jackie has an affair with Rickard and gets pregnant. Initially she does not tell him, unsure whether she wants to keep the child. Eventually, she decides to have the child and she has a son, Marion. However, she decides to end the relationship with Rickard while pregnant. I knew that I would never be able to share a child with anyone, she says. Rickard, unwilling to be involved only as a visitor, disappears from their lives.
Jim eventually is released from the hospital but Jackie does not see him for nearly twenty years. One day, while with a group of friends, she sees a drunk behaving badly in the street. She realises it is her father. He does not see her. She ignores him. Meanwhile, he remarries and has two sons. That marriage is as unsuccessful as his first one. However, he eventually reappears and tries to re-establish a connection.
Meanwhile, Lone is travelling, travelling around the world where she photographs the devastation in disasters’ wake, children running in poisonous rain, fallen trees, dead rivers. She, too, is unhappy. Meanwhile, Jim moves to Cariño in Spain, living on his own and contemplating suicide.
Two outside events, and two only, have an effect on the characters. The first is Olof Palme, who was later assassinated. His mother is a patient at Beckomberga and he visits him regularly. Several of the characters, particularly Olof, look up to him and are devastated at his death, though Olof does not learn of it till ten years later. The other key event is Chernobyl, which Lone is particularly interested in but other characters are aware of it. Apart from these two, they seem cut off from the rest of the world.
This is not surprisingly a somewhat gloomy and depressing book. However, Stridsberg does an excellent job of showing people struggling with depression and associated problems and those who live with such people. No-one in this book is even vaguely happy. Jackie, the narrator, does not have friends and cannot or does not want to maintain a relationship (perhaps understandable after her parents’ marriage). Of the main characters, three commit suicide and one tries on many occasions, even saying, at the end of the book, that he plans to walk into the sea.
Stridsberg ends with a brief history of Beckomberga and the treatment of mental illness in Sweden. She points out that, when Beckomberga was first built, in the 1930s, it was common to institutionalise the mentally ill but, nowadays, with improved drugs and fewer resources, it is more common to leave them in the community. There are only about ten per cent of the beds available nowadays compared to fifty years ago.
First published 2014 by Bonniers
First English translation 2016 by Maclehose Press
Translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner