I have been thinking a lot about Nordic literature lately. Maybe it’s because of the season but at this time of year all I want to do is hibernate, get the knitted socks out, drink hot chocolate and cosy up with an old favourite classic or a suitably melancholic Scandi book. Maybe it’s simply because the cold and the darkness here in winter reminds me of home, so I want to read books that help take me there while I’m here in England. Either way I think that stories from the Nordic countries are just the perfect thing to read at this time of year.
For the past few years I have noticed that more and more literature from the Scandinavian and Nordic countries get translated into English and it makes me so happy that publishers dare to take a chance on books from smaller languages. Without translations those stories won’t reach very far and without English translations in particular I can’t recommend them or share them with people here. And while my mother tongue is Danish and I can read both Swedish and Norwegian as well, they also help me to encounter books from Nordic countries whose languages I can’t read, such as Finnish and Icelandic.
Literature is known for its ability to take us away, from ourselves and where we are, from the life that we lead. It just wasn’t until I moved to a different country myself that I realised literature can also take us home. So here are a few Nordic reads I have enjoyed lately, because they have reminded me of home and helped to soothe my always lingering homesickness but also because they have taken me on a journey.
The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat: and other stories from the North – ed. Sjon and Ted Hodgkinson*
“The North: home of epic storytelling, birthplace of the saga, where stories of human survival have long been sculpted by the region’s natural elements, from sheltering forests to islands lashed by unforgiving seas. This exquisite anthology, selected by Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson, collects fiction from across the Nordic region in all its thrilling diversity; storytelling that is often rooted in the world of folklore and fairytale, or sometimes stark realism, and typically served up with a dark and dry wit of this world on the brink.”
I don’t read a lot of short stories so when I do, I select them carefully and this is such a beautiful collection of stories! When I first heard about the collection and saw which authors had been picked, I was amazed at the diversity of the selection and excited to see some of my favourites like Kjell Askildsen in it, as well as authors from Greenland and the Faroe Islands that I wasn’t familiar with.
Rather than reading them all in one go, I have been taking my time with the collection, dipping in an out of the book and savouring each story. The experience has been a little bit like picking out a piece of chocolate from a box and letting it slowly melt in your mouth until all the flavour comes out. I even took the book with me when I recently went home to see my family and spent a weekend in our wood cabin in Sweden reading it while the woodstove burned. I thought there was a lot of variety in the stories but also something that made them feel connected to each other. There is a simplicity in both the writing and in the plots that is typical of Nordic literature, fantastical elements even in the stories that belong more to realism and a sense of a threat or something sinister lurking in the background of ordinary, everyday lives.
These stories really deserve to be read and what better time to do it than in the middle of winter when everything is at its darkest and bleakest. One story in particular, the Man in the Boat by the Swedish author Per Olov Enquist really got to me and has been haunting me ever since, so much that I find myself still thinking about it now many weeks later.
Secret Passages in a Hillside Town – Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen*
“In a small hillside town, Olli Suominen – publisher and discontented husband – is constantly losing umbrellas. He has also joined a film club. And Greta, an old flame, has added him on Facebook. As his life becomes more and more entangled with Greta’s and his wife and son are dragged into the aftermath of this teenage romance, Olli is forced to make a choice. But does he really want to know what the secret passages are? Can he be sure that Greta is who she seems to be? And what actually happened on that summer’s day long ago?
Absorbing, atmospheric and often very funny, Secret Passages in a Hillside Town is an intoxicating novel about the grip of the past and the romance of what has been lost.”
When Pushkin Press got in contact with me last year and told me that the author of one of my favourite novels, The Rabbit Back Literature Society, would be publishing a new book this winter I got very excited. Despite not really being into magical realism, I had found myself falling absolutely in love with the Rabbit Back. So a part of me was worried from the beginning that I would be putting too much expectation on Jääskeläinen’s new book before even opening it.
I don’t know if that’s the reason I didn’t really like Secret Passages at first. I didn’t warm to Olli and found both him, his life and the whole plot very weird and a bit ridiculous. Despite that there was something alluring about it that made me want to keep reading, if only to get to the end to find out what all the mystery was about. And what an ending that turned out to be!
This turned out to be such a strange, different and also slightly heart breaking love story, a story about a lost childhood, memories and all the ways we can hurt and abandon each other as we go through life, either because we mean to or because they get tangled up in our lives along the way. It had a dream-like quality that made everything in the story seem unreal, like the experience you sometimes get when you are dreaming of something that is constantly just out of your reach even when you try to move towards it.
I didn’t fall in love with it like I did with the Rabbit Back but there was still something about it I can’t quite put down in words.
One of Us Is Sleeping – Josefine Klougart
“The English-language debut from one of Denmark’s most exciting, celebrated young writers, One of Us Is Sleeping is a haunting novel about loss in all its forms.
As she returns home to visit her mother who is dying of cancer, the narrator recounts a brief, intense love affair, as well as the grief and disillusionment that follow its end. The book’s striking imagery and magnificent prose underpin its principal theme: the jarring contrast between the recollection of stability, your parents, your childhood home, your love, and the continual endings that we experience throughout our lives.“
When I was home in November, I remembered to grab my copy of this book from the shelf in my room and took it back with me to England, so I could reread it here in the cold months and be reminded of the snow and the melancholic mood of Danish winters. Josefine Klougart has been one of my absolutely favourite Danish authors since her debut came out in Denmark in 2010. Reading her for the first time was a complete epiphany to me and while this book is one of her later ones it’s just as beautiful and one of the few that have been translated.
Klougart writes in Danish like no one else I have ever encountered. She has often been described as the Danish Virginia Woolf because of her long, stretching stream-of-consciousness sentences that weave in and out of each other. Her words have an amazing ability to create vivid images in your mind and they are so poetic, so lyrical and beautiful. I love books that carries a kind of silence in them and both Klougart’s words and the scenes she writes about are filled with this kind of poetic stillness. They make you slow down and notice all the little everyday things that Klougart is so good at writing about. Things and objects that might not seem important but make up our lives.
This is one of those authors that I really wish more English readers knew about. Even if just one person picks up the book after reading this I will be happy. I admit it’s not the easiest book to get a hold of, at least here in the UK (it’s easier in the US) but you can order it through Waterstones.
The Invisible Child – Tove Jansson
“A unique collaboration between the Moomins, Oxfam, Waterstones and Sort Of Books, The Invisible Child will raise money for projects that fight inequality and help women and girls everywhere escape from poverty, abuse and neglect.
In Tove Jansson’s much loved short story, The Invisible Child, the isolated Ninny is helped to regain her voice and take her rightful place in the world using a simple Moomin recipe. She is welcomed into the Moomin family and treated with equality and respect. This is one of the most touching of all Moomin stories and is paired in this unique book with The Fir Tree, the Moomins’ gloriously unselfish take on Christmas.”
One day when I was walking home from work at the castle, I found a £5 note lying on the street with no owner in sight. I felt bad picking it up but I put it in my wallet and for a long time I walked around with it, not being able to decide if I should treat myself to something nice or if I should give it to charity. Then Oxfam and Waterstones published this book with 100% of its £4.99 cost going to charity and my mind was made up to do both.
I grew up watching the Moominntrolls cartoons on television in Denmark but don’t remember reading any of the books, so this was my first one. The Invisible Child is such a sweet, little story and even though it’s a short and simple one, I enjoyed reading it and what it had to say about how we treat other people and how, if we are treated right, we let our real personalities show. The other story in the book, the Fir Tree I haven’t read yet, as I’m saving it for Christmas but a peek at the illustrations is making me think it will be just as sweet.
I’ve seen a lot of people on social media mention the Summer Book by Jansson this year, so after reading this I think I might finally try and give that one a read, too.
If this post has made you interested in finding more Nordic books to read I wrote another post a few years ago that you might like, too. And if you have any favourites you think I should read leave them for me in the comments, I’m always looking for more!
*These books were kindly sent to me from the publisher at my own request.