Readers of Swedish novels of the last three decades could be forgiven for assuming that Sweden is populated with depressed, violent, or autistic people spreading murder and mayhem. From Henning Mankell to Stieg Larsson the popularity of the genre has been phenomenal. Even the more recent and certainly, rather less dark Swedish best-seller, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, has the main character trying to hang himself, fortunately without success.
Understandably, publishers want to sell books in large numbers and, while there is still a huge demand for dark, brutal and terrifying fiction set against a cold and desolate Scandinavian backdrop, this doesn’t present a balanced or true picture of Swedish society.
Having the good fortune to be able to read in several foreign languages has given me access to a wider range of foreign fiction than is available in English translation. A work by the renowned prize-winning and much-loved Swedish writer Nan Östman – Some Kind of Company – which I chanced upon on a business trip to Sweden, may go some way towards redressing the balance and providing a much-needed antidote to Swedish noir. For many years Nan Östman was the most heavily borrowed author in Swedish libraries, and in 1987 she won the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.
The principal character in the novel is Anna, a translator by profession, who feels privileged to be still working in her seventies. The story is set in the last decades of the twentieth century and gives us a snapshot of Swedish post-war middle-class society. Anna lives in the idyllic Swedish countryside, but her children have grown up and live at a distance, and her husband rarely speaks to her. She feels that life has passed her by and that she has in some way been cheated. She is no Lisbeth Salander, but in a quiet and determined way she decides to take revenge and bring some changes into her life. She advertises for a male pen friend and, from a gratifyingly large number of replies, she selects a widower called Bo. Their exchange of letters has a surprising outcome.
Anna’s situation is one which will find an echo in the lives of many readers and perhaps not a few will feel a twinge of envy at her courage. Having lived through a long period of great anxiety and unease, readers are looking for fiction that is compelling but gentle and soothing. And in publishing a version of Some Kind of Company that can now be enjoyed by a wider audience, I hope that more people will fall in love with the extraordinary beauty of Sweden, its people and its literature.
Some Kind of Company by Nan Östman (Aspal Prime, an imprint of Aspal Press, £12.99) is available from all good book retailers https://bit.ly/SomeKindOfCompanyNO.