A narrator’s silence exposes difficult truths

Welcome to America, the new English translation from lauded Swedish writer Linda Bostrom Knausgaard, begins in the wake of tragedy.

“It’s been a long time already since I stopped talking,” the novel’s young narrator Ellen explains.

“They’re used to it now. My mum, my brother. My dad’s dead, so I don’t know what he’d have to say about it.”

Ellen’s silence is just one symptom of the grief that has descended on their apartment following the death of her father. Her brother has “locked himself away in his room with his music. He nailed the door shut. He pissed in bottles he kept.”

Their mother, an actress, has immersed herself in her work, and her own self-care.

It needs to be acknowledged that Bostrom Knausgaard is the ex-wife of noted autofictionalist Karl Ove Knausgaard, and a supporting character in his six-volume magnum opus.

And that’s all that needs to be said about that: Any suggestion that name recognition or second-hand fame (or notoriety) has any part in her writing career is not only patently offensive, it would have to deliberately ignore the facts.

While it is her first novel to be translated into English, “Welcome to America” is Bostrom Knausgaard’s second book, and was awarded the prestigious Swedish August Prize.

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Her first novel, “The Helios Disaster,” was awarded the Mare Kandre Prize. It will be published in English next year.

While it is a slight novel, barely 120 pages, “Welcome to America” is visceral, almost physical in its force, carried by a restrained, direct prose.

Welcome to America, by Linda Bostrom Knausgaard, trans. by Martin Aitken, 128 pages, World Editions, $ 19.99

Bostrom Knausgaard is comfortable with suggestion, rather than coming to conclusions, trusting underlying truths and realizations to form in the reader’s mind.

She is confident enough in her observations to allow them to stand on their own, rather than reworking them over dozens or hundreds of pages.

Crucial to the novel’s success is the depiction of Ellen herself. While her mother is certain her silence is a whim, it is more than childish pique.

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Ellen herself isn’t entirely sure why she is refusing to speak. Part of her motivation is that she believes she is responsible for her father’s death. “It’s my fault. I prayed out loud for him to die and he did.”

Beyond that, she has also stopped speaking as a recourse to her creeping maturity: “I stopped talking when growing began to take up too much space inside me. I was sure I couldn’t do both, grow and talk at the same time.” It becomes a gesture of control in a world in which she seemingly has none.

As the novel explores her silence, and her perspective on those around her, difficult truths begin to emerge.

Who was her father, and why does she think she bears responsibility for his death? What is the nature of her relationship with her violent brother, her narcissistic mother?

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As an exploration of both grief and mental illness, the novel has a subtle, insidious power.

“Welcome to America” is a slim, beautiful act of grace, a novel that moves easily through the shadows and patches of light within its characters, through truths half-glimpsed and barely acknowledged.

It will remind readers of the intimate force of Ingmar Bergman’s films, secrets and lies in close focus, haunting and desperately true.

Robert J. Wiersema is the author, most recently, of Seven Crow Stories.

TORONTO STAR

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