It is a magnificent work that Agnes Lidbeck has achieved with Nikky’s Book. The size is certainly impressive, but the accomplishment even more so. With this novel something completely new appears in her authorship, a distinct difference from the condensed, almost schematic efficiency of her previous novels. Lidbeck’s style is fully recognisable, often terse sentences with assertive observations, but the fact that the plot extends across so many pages makes it sinuous and dynamic; the slightly barren streak that could be found in Supporting Act and The Rift does not exist here. Nikky’s Book has softer edges /… / Through all the years and all the entanglements, the narrator gently guides the reader with comments about the zeitgeist, with reminders that we are dealing with fiction – a fabricated story. And yet everything feels so sincere, so vivid and intimate. Kummelvik becomes such a lucid place, so cinematic, and the characters companions, such familiar company that it almost hurts to leave them – those who are still alive – in the end.
Nikky’s Book is not only impressive as some kind of sporting achievement. It also has that certain pull that can glue the reader to the pages night after night – a kind of epic spell.
Agnes Lidbeck’s new novel is a triumph. Substantial in size as well as population-wise, it is an ensemble novel if there is such a term. Three families, almost each of them followed very closely, in the revealing, disclosing way that is typical of Lidbeck /… / Kummelvik on Österlen plays its own part, not only as a setting for most of the events taking place, but also as an illustration of Sweden’s evolvement during the last century. From a barren and rugged fishing village to the decline of the fishing industry, to the financial crisis, to the dotcom bust, to the rise of xenophobia, to gentrification and the glorification of anything that can be hailed as “genuine” (sheepskin, ceramics, honey, homemade surfboards) /… / She does not shy away from anything, all the shameful and embarrassing aspects of human life are exposed in microscopic detail. Agnes Lidbeck certainly has an uncanny knack for illuminating the things you can hardly manage to acknowledge – passive aggression, sublime displays of power, mute but overexplicit rebukes. Things you could never pin on anyone, things you can always gloss over as misunderstandings or misjudgements, perhaps even as “jokes”, but that are more violent than a stabbing. Agnes Lidbeck makes you feel exposed as the goon you really are. This, in combination with the premise that a life is simply the sum of its components, have previously made me a little apprehensive about Lidbeck’s stories. I read Nikky’s Book, despite the semi-elegantly inserted contemporary remarks, as if she has found a mojo, or a spiritual dimension. Or if it has found her.
What I like about the story which unfolds over four decades is that life gains perspective. Steamy passion turns into daily grind, old quarrels lose their sting and secrets take on unmanageable proportions in the dark. Youthful zest that hopefully turn into middle-age insight. Teenage love that continues to ache and never fully heal. The different stages of friendship, from intense to detached but always ready to be rekindled. Death that offers a new glimpse on everything. The character gallery is large and as the protagonists drift in and out of focus, new dimensions are revealed, even when they are only present as a background blur. What makes Nikky’s Book such a vivid story is also due to the setting: Kummelvik. The fishing village that becomes gentrified. Agnes Lidbeck brilliant captures a mood and the intimacy that occurs in a small place where everyone, whether they like it or not, become a part of each other’s lives.
At a Loss turns into a very brave attempt to understand, not forgive but understand, male domestic abuse, by depicting a man’s alienation and inadequacy in a coordinate system where the fixed points – the mother, the wife, the daughter – constantly educates, judges and forgives, but refuses to see him for who he really is. The novel is apparently the final part of a triptych about relationships, but still we have only just seen the beginning of an authorship that is stringent, nuanced and austerely poignant in a way that makes Agnes Lidbeck one of Swedish prose’s foremost contemporary voices. I can’t remember, off the top of my head, when I last read a novel that affected me so deeply, that has lingered for so long and that still, as I’m browsing my review copy, has made me so melancholic yet so excited about the prospects of literature .
Agnes Lidbeck has a knack for finding the most hideous, the most trivial, but also the true darkness in our modern lives /… / With her triptych Lidbeck has composed a distressingly universal work about contemporary life that will be relevant for some time to come.
Lidbeck’s ability to write about the passing of time, days and years that blend into one, is on a par with Virginia Woolf, and her fictive universe recalls Bergman.
Agnes Lidbeck is magnificent at finding the pressure points that expose human irrationality /… / A less gifted author would probably not manage the structure. The gaps in both plot and time between the book’s five sections could have made the story sweeping but Lidbeck achieves it splendidly. The perfect pitch, the stylistic acuity, the superb personification, the elegance of the responses that only take place through a phrase or a thought: everything suggests Lidbeck’s significance as an author and becomes a joy to read.
Agnes Lidbeck has written a sharp and haunting debut. The sharpness is in her gaze, how she chooses to follow large parts of this woman’s life but also how she does it like it was all make-believe, taking place somewhere else. /…/ And Lidbeck’s own gaze is never judging, which enhances the tension. She lets Anna observe her own body, his body, the fluff on the children’s heads and their gestures, from a neutral point, like no one have ever done it before. She’s not afraid of Anna’s incapacity, which could be read as coldness - no, she’s examining the world from what it is. The little world. For that is the one in which Anna is stuck.
It is tremendously skilfully done /…/ Agnes Lidbeck writes with an exact clarity, stripped and pregnant. The story flows through a series of statements, Anna’s actions documented without unnecessary adjectives or elaborations. It is effective, only that which must be there is there. The children, for instance, are only glimpsed in subordinate clauses, they are not important by themselves, only as objects for Anna’s motherly role. It is efficient and strangely entertaining, a really twisted look upon the everyday life, emphasizing the absurdness of our everlasting turns to fit our doughy bodies into hard structures.
Sometimes you come across real gems: books that are interesting, well-written and well-balanced between a neat linguistic style and an engaging story. Rarely, they come from debutants. Agnes Lidbeck’s debut novel, about women’s roles, self-realization and being content, is an exception.
Agnes Lidbeck has written a more melancholic novel this time, stylish and subdued, but with a softer gaze on her characters /… / She has maintained her sharp observations of mannerisms and details, the things that make the characters hopeless and human, the course of events intrusive, and the reading poignant.
I keep track of all new Swedish authorships and last year, as soon as I had devoured Agnes Lidbeck’s debut Supporting Act, I sensed that it was the beginning of something remarkably significant. I interpreted it as a feministic portrayal of a woman’s plight: the expectations on a wife, a mother, a carer. Obviously – and irritatingly enough – Agnes Lidbeck did not agree; she claims that it was about human conditions. She would probably say the same thing about The Rift: that it’s about family relations, not sisterhood. However, Anna in Supporting Act and Ellen and Maria in The Rift have one thing in common: all three women are so fallible and so commonplace, allowing the reader to relate to them, and at the same time they are bad role models for all of us. It’s actually very refreshing.
Agnes Lidbeck’s debut novel Supporting Act was praised by myself and many other critics for the way it dissected the contemporary woman, written in a stark prose and with absolute precision. This new novel is just as well-composed, just as urgent, just as witty, yes even just as affecting. There aren’t that many books that linger in the reader’s mind and that becomes better for every read. The Rift is such a book.
Lidbeck is a brilliant stylist and her family paradise lost is meticulously evoked – as a reader you can envision the hammock, the boathouse, the red maple, the neighbour boys on their bikes, the creaking wooden floors, the fingers dyed red from strawberries, the blue couch that will eventually be inherited.
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