Book review: Welcome to America (Välkommen till Amerika) by Linda Boström Knausgård

Linda Boström Knausgård is an award-winning Swedish author and poet. She is also the ex-wife of the now infamous Karl Ove Knausgård. Mr Knausgård’s six-book autobiography proved, once again, that readers relish the dredged-up inner musings of self-centred, troubled intellectuals. However, I do not find the lack of female voices in this genre coincidental. Men are thinkers and women are doers, right? Men have time for philosophy, while woman make the world go round. This is cliché, of course, but tradition is stubborn. Forgive me for having limited pity for mentally troubled middle-class white men. Yes, I have pity, but limited. At least their stories are told.

Enter this heady peek into an extraordinary female mind.

The narrator is a young unnamed girl who has stopped speaking. Wrapped up in darkness, silence and solitude, she withdraws from life. She is a contrary person in many ways, who admits that even when she used to speak she lied all the time anyway. She describes the world around her with intense pessimism and irony.

“No one really wants their wishes fulfilled. It disturbs the order of things. The order people really want. We want to be disappointed. We want to be wounded and forced to fight for survival. We want to get the wrong presents on our birthday.”

Her older brother spends most of his time locked in his room, ignoring his family, urinating in bottles so that he doesn’t have to come out.

Their mother is described in sensual and idyllic terms as a beautiful, all-comforting creature of sweet scents and light. Light above all. The mother repeats many times that they are “a family of light”, a phrase which works its way into many of the narrator’s musings. The narrator loves her mother fiercely, though it is a dark love, based largely on despair at being a constant disappointment and not being able to make her happy.

“My insides blazed when she cried… I felt like I was inside her suffering, as though entangled in threads which I tried to unravel one by one… but my presence didn’t help, because those tears were so much stronger.”

We learn at the very beginning that the father is dead, but we see him in memories and visions throughout the book. He was mentally ill and had a history of alcoholism and violence. His family were all afraid of him. His death comes as a great relief.

The father’s descent began when he was forced to leave his simple life up north to follow the mother to the capital when she chose to study drama and become an actress. Lost in the city, he becomes increasingly physically abusive towards his wife and she kicks him out of the house. He shows up periodically, supposedly to kill them, though the narrator is clearly unreliable in this respect and we do not know his real intentions or actions. The narrator talks to her dead father in her mind. She sees him sometimes too. Reality, memory and hallucinations are blurred. At times it is also unclear what is conversation, what is thought and what is narration.

Sometimes the narrator’s refusal to speak upsets her mother so much that she wishes she were dead so that her mother might be happy. She thinks of killing herself, and prays to God to let her die. One day there is a fire at the school, and she is convinced that it is her fault, and that the fire came about as a result of her prayers for death. When she gets home she writes a note to her mother to tell her about the fire, and she is overjoyed at this first communication from her daughter. The narrator admits it felt good to write something down and wonders if she will write again. But soon she feels vulnerable and over-exposed, which leads to even more depression and hallucinations.

“Then the days that followed the nights were ablaze with light, a light so strong that I had to keep my eyes closed. I stayed in bed from morning to night with my eyes closed. The light stung. My father got in through my eyelids and sang his Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome, with the bells chiming all the while. I tried to get rid of him, but he danced around like the blue dots behind my eyelids.”

The narrator’s teachers call her mother into school to discuss her progress. Ellen, as we eventually find out she is called, cannot progress to the next school year if she continues to refuse to speak. Her mother is angered and whisks her daughter away. Something about this rebellion frees Ellen, to an extent. She will not go outside, but decides to spend time on the balcony. There, with graphic novels and cigarettes, and her mother listening to music inside, she realises that she actually feels happy.

But, like all good things in Ellen’s life and world view, this happiness is fleeting and illusory. She thinks about happy memories of her childhood and the true darkness that lay underneath. The book concludes with a memory of the whole family fishing. Her brother insisted they pull aboard a fish that he believed was alive, and the family were horrified when they saw the reality – that the fish was dead and half-eaten by seagulls. Yet they carry on regardless, acting, as ever, like a family of light.

This is foremost a book about depression, mental illness and complex family relationships. Light and darkness are recurring motifs, as are death and God. The narrator feels that she has “access to God” and prays to Him a lot, as the only outlet for her silence. She prays for her father to die. She prays for her mother to be happy. She prays that she will die in order for her mother to be happy.

The crossover from childhood to adulthood is also recurring theme and the line is often blurred. The narrator is convinced that God won’t make her live until adulthood, as though killing her young will be a blessing. She cannot imagine herself as an adult and finds growth and change repugnant, especially when she notices her brother becoming a man. She is nostalgic for the simple passivity of infanthood, when nothing was expected of her, and she could be silent all she wanted, safe under her mother’s watch.

This book is more about streams of consciousness and subjectivity than story line, so I didn’t want to like it, but in fact I found it an extremely enjoyable and rewarding read. Despite its dark and heavy themes, there is a simplistic beauty to it, and a surprising lack of pretension. The author blends emotion with image, and poetry with the prosaic, in a smooth and flowing style that urges you to read on. It is easy to sympathise with the characters, and read personal experiences into theirs. A harsh light is shone on the festering memories of an unhappy childhood; there is sense of healing, as though thoughts too dark to put into words have finally been released.

In style and genre I am reminded of: Karl Ove Knausgård’s solipsistic autobiography; Ali Smith’s easy flow between action and memory; and the unsentimental self-pity of existentialist female writers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Sylvia Plath.

Välkommen till Amerika is published by Modernista and English language rights are available from Copenhagen Literary Agency.