If you have been to the North, you will know that you are at its mercy. In winter the sun barely peers over the horizon; in summer the nights stretch on and on into dawn. The cold won’t nip your nose: it will kill you. Volcanoes erupt and swallow the land. Humanity’s neat ideas about nationhood and identity seem especially fragile: human beings are not the ones in control. In The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat, a collection of stories “from the North”, the editors – Ted Hodgkinson (senior programmer for literature and spoken word at London’s Southbank Centre) and the Icelandic writer Sjón – find a common thread of storytelling across these chill and beautiful lands.
For the book’s purposes nine regions and cultures are included: not just Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Finland but also Greenland, the Faroe Islands, the Åland Islands and Saami Norway in that country’s far north; a huge geographical span brought together in narrative and united against the elements. The old Nordic sagas are full of magic and terror: their modern equivalents, this book reveals, have many of the same sensibilities. Readers who know Nordic literature, either via the popularity of Scandinavian crime novels or thanks to the hyperrealism of a writer such as Karl Ove Knausgaard, may be in for a surprise. These are 21st-century wonder-tales, in which the ordinary round of daily life remains “alive to the possibilities of human transformation”, says the editors’ lucid introduction.
Perhaps the clearest example of such a tale is “The White-Bear King Valemon”, by the Swedish writer Linda Boström Knausgaard (translated by Martin Aitken). It begins with a girl, Ellinor, living at the edge of a forest; so far, so fairytale. But then: “The road construction was still going on, advancing steadily, consuming the earth bit by bit.” Her mother cleans obsessively, her father drinks; but the forest calls her, and what follows is a haunting story of a young woman pulled between the quotidian and the mythic. She falls in love with a bear; but the falling is also a becoming, until she herself is scaling the steep face of a mountain with her claws. This is luminous writing, alive to the natural world, aware of the present day and yet seeking another dimension.
Many of the stories in this collection insist in this way on their own reality. “Weekend in Reykjavík”, by Kristín Ómarsdóttir (translated by Jane Appleton), begins with an ordinary descriptive paragraph of the surroundings of Iceland’s National Gallery, but then shifts bluntly away from realism into a world of performance and attack, where food appears “through a thin curtain that hides the other dimension”. This is a book full of hidden dimensions. More than once I laughed out loud while reading, simply at the surprise of what I discovered when I turned the page.
But no less compelling is Frode Grytten’s story “1974”, translated from the Norwegian by Diane Oatley. This is a classic coming-of-age story, in which a boy discovers his mother is having an affair. It takes place over a summer, in a group of holiday cottages owned by the smelting works in Odda in south-central Norway where the boy’s father is employed. “In 1974 Odda had its historical moment – when social democracy reached its peak, all visions were within reach, the working class had civilized capitalism, and the welfare society was as close to reaching fruition as it would ever be,” says the narrator, looking back. He portrays a fracturing idyll: his father violent, his mother unhappy, her lover driving around in a white Ford Thunderbird, its exhaust casting a symbolic pall over the landscape. After the peak must come the trough: the Scandinavian ideal of equality is no more robust than any other national goal.
And those ideals themselves have a darker side. So here, too, are cultures which have survived by defining themselves against a majority: the Greenlanders, the Saami. “The dead are here,” writes Sigbjørn Skåden, a writer who grew up in a Saami village. “With no drama, no conundrum, without being anything out of the ordinary, they are here.”
This is a remarkable collection. The editors show both the vigour and variety of the short story form in the North and how, perhaps surprisingly, the sharp air of those high latitudes breathes through them all.
The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and Other Stories from the North
Edited and introduced by Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson
Pushkin Press, 256 pp, £9.99
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief