When we first meet the solitary Astrid, she is in a quandary: something is definitely wrong at her new neighbor’s house, but she’s sidelined herself from society for such a long time that she doesn’t really know what to do about it.
Astrid could no longer sleep. She wandered between her room and the kitchen, coffee mug in hand. The car was still in the same place. She couldn’t have left. Yet there was no sign of life. She means nothing to me, she told herself. I know nothing about her. I have no business intruding. (p. 14)Astrid’s humanity conquers her reticence, however, and she finally makes her way to Veronika’s door:
When the door opened and she stood face to face with the young woman, she realised that life had irrevocably returned. She cared. (p. 15)Because of this choice, this singular act of reaching out to another human being in need, the eighty-year-old Astrid is eventually able to reclaim a part of her life. With the decision to help comes a kind of absolution, and Veronika, a young writer with her own sadnesses to escape, acts as Astrid’s confessor. And with every secret she reveals, Astrid’s character comes more into focus.
Up to the point where she meets Veronika, Astrid’s life has been almost entirely defined by her relationships with two men: her father and her husband. Both are destructive, malevolent forces, and Astrid’s bitterness remains, even when they are both out of her life forever:
“When my father died, I cut up all his clothes and started to weave. When my husband was taken to the rest-home, I began on his.” Astrid stepped onto one of the rugs and let the sole of her foot rub against it. “It gives me pleasure to walk on them,” she said. (p. 56)But as the book progresses, Astrid learns that she does have control over her reactions to her past. Each secret she reveals to Veronika is a part of herself she can finally face and accept. Her final letter to Veronika crystallizes her understanding of her life and her hard-won philosophy of community. It was one of the most inspirational passages I have read in a very long time, a kind of manifesto for sisterhood. Which is why I cried. Uncontrollably. Astrid is truly unforgettable.
This book will make you reflect on the relationships that have defined your life – the short ones and the long ones. I would recommend it to readers of literary and world fiction, especially those who appreciate a feminist perspective.
This finishes The Black Sheep Dances’ Scandinavian Reading Challenge. I am so happy I participated – I have found two of my favorite books of the year (and maybe of all time) through the challenge! Thanks, Amy, both for hosting the challenge and for the book recommendation! And thanks to Jen at The Introverted Reader for hosting Character Connection. If you’ve never participated in that meme, you don’t know what you’re missing.