The Novels of Kerstin Ekman
By David Harrolsson
The Swedish novelist Kerstin Ekman, hit world status with her European blockbuster Blackwater, in 1994.
Blackwater has all her best novelistic traits, and also her failings.
A writer of wide and wonderful facility; she is essentially a fabulist: stories, anecdotes, myths tumble from her in abundance.
One detail from ‘Blackwater’ – a local policeman, at the end of a long day’s stint talking to a senior school, tells his class the real story of a failed robbery. The robbers, two city types, made off with their swag in a stolen car, heading up north. Holed up in an empty house, they were found next day, frozen to death. The simple flaw in their plan: being city types they did not have the basic knowledge for living in the north: how to light the wood stove.
Taken as it is, it is just another, authentic-sounding, statistic. But the time was the early 1970s, the cold war, and fears of nuclear attack seemed immanent. The children insisted the teacher made two school curricula: one standard, and one covering everything they could ever need to know to survive: how to bake break: which grain, how plough, harvest, with what etc.
The children were avid; then a parent found out, and the teacher, one of the book’s main characters, was sacked ‘for frightening the children’.
All of her books are rich in a wide variety of technical expertise. The book makes us question all those things we take for granted. To be full paid-up responsible adults, these are things, the book suggests on one level, we must question and be able to respond to. To be responsible to our children, another of the book’s main themes; what it is to be a child, and how being a parent is a part of that: from the bottom up.
The irony, also, is an Ekman hallmark.
Kerstin Ekman was born in mid Sweden in 1933. Like many other writers of her generation she moved north: north means, beyond the artic circle. This was their authentic experience of the real Sweden.
This is the setting of one of her earlier books, Under the Snow, written in 1960 and translated in 1997. It is a thriller based in a tiny village in the Swedish arctic; settled by nomadic Sami, Swedes helped set up a local school.
Thorsson, local policeman, receives a call about a death. It is subzero still, the last of the long winter. A wonderful vignette: the super-fit younger colleague, all the right clothes, turns an ankle in the first few yards. In the summer, a language academic excitedly scribbles the ferryman’s curses.
Someone says ‘killed’, another ‘accident’; everything suggests suicide.
In arctic communities it is a matter of honour that everyone looks out for each other. This is the clue: honour plumbs the meaning of the death. It is essentially a clash of cultures.
In the 1970s she put herself through a strict discipline. This was the tetrology of books Witches Rings, Spring, Angel House, City of Light, available from the Norvik Press.
They follow the growth of an end-of-the-tracks village where the railway ended, to a prosperous city; but followed through from inside, that is, through the lives of its women. A wholly successful enterprise; this gained her wide recognition. Rich and full of authentic detail.
At best the books tread a careful line between character-led organic development, and explorations of history. Angel House, set in WWII explores the cost of Sweden’s neutrality: local militia guard rail stops as retreating German troops pass through from Norway; and then the sealed train that stopped briefly in the out-of-the-way station. Some said ‘German collaborators’, but the truth was ‘the last of Norway’s jews’. The sudden jolt of implication is ours, but historically those realities were not then known. The fallibility of our humanity is the main thrust of the book.
After the success of Blackwater readers wanted another; what they got was The Book of Hours. A long sweep of Swedish history, again from the inside, but this time explored through the exploits of a strange, sinister character: long lived, non-human but passing as human; a troll. And the magic realism of the book disconcerted some readers.
The book is full of the culture of forestry, medieval alchemy, the histories of religion, medicine, and commerce.
I mentioned her failings as a writer; this centres on the problem that plotlines do not always come together. If, like me, however, you become so engrossed in the storytelling, then it ceases to be an issue.