This novel was given to me as a present by someone I love very much. Reading it brings me back to my time in Sweden, though I lived there in a different time and in a different part of the country. I have grown to love this author, who is famous for her wonderful descriptions of people, especially women, and their relationships. This book is a good example of her style, focussed on the characters’ inner lives, but it has a lot of action as well. This makes it a great book to start with if you’ve never read anything by Marianne Fredriksson. Coincidentally, it actually was my first book written by her, and so it is meaningful to me in more than one way.
Simon Larsson, only eleven years old, says goodbye to his childhood one day by declaring that the oaks he used to have conversations with are just old trees and nothing more. He thinks he is too old for the ‘nonsense’ his active mind comes up with, now that he is about to start at a good school in the city of Gothenburg. From now on, he wants to occupy his mind with rational, sensible thoughts and as much learning as possible. As we follow him growing up, it appears that he is unable to reduce his world to facts, much as he tries. To a young man trying to come to terms with things like family, sexuality, race, love and war, an academic mind serves well but it doesn’t suffice. When he is finally grown up, it turns out that he still needs the dreams that, years ago, made the oaks talk.
But at eleven, Simon is the only boy in his school who comes from a blue-collar family and, to make matters worse, he looks like a Jew. The beginning of the story takes place in 1939, and as you might or might not know, antisemitism in Sweden was soaring (even today, Swedish Jewish communities spend 25 percent of their income from member fees on safety measures). At the start of the Second World War, Sweden became paralysed with fear that Nazi Germany would invade their country. A thousand times more afraid, and rightly so, were the Jews living in Sweden, many of whom had fled from Germany and knew the Nazi violence firsthand. In Simon and the Oaks, one of those people is Isak. He is one of Simon’s classmates, whose Jewish family has fled from Berlin. The boys become fast friends and stay friends throughout the war years, and ever after. Their friendship brings their two vastly different families together: one quite poor and ordinary, the other rich but troubled.
I’m from a country that actually was invaded by the Nazis and we of course know that Sweden escaped that fate, unlike neighbouring Norway. However, I hadn’t realised the amount of uncertainty and fear the mere possibility of invasion brought with it for five years, especially for the people who stood to lose the most. Marianne Fredriksson knows how to paint an era and she does so in detail. It makes a story of ‘almost-but-not-actually-war’ incredibly nerve-racking. More than that, she recognises that the war didn’t stop at the surrender by Nazi-Germany. Europe is broken, the Jews are decimated, not to mention the psychological damage they have suffered. But time does not stand still and boys will continue to grow into men, and Simon and Isak do.
Throughout the war years and their aftermath, the hard reality of Simon’s existence is softened by something magical: his love for music. Hearing an orchestra play, even on a grammophone, will paint a scene in front of his eyes, as clearly as in real life. At first he doesn’t know what connects him to music in such a special way, but growing up he discovers secrets about himself that explain a few things. However, his strong imagination keeps on puncturing reality until he can accept that he can’t understand everything.
The mystical elements in the story are often linked to scenes of nature, which is, in my experience, a very Swedish thing to do. The Swedish do love their country and its natural beauties, and they will never stop singing the praises of their woods, rocks and lakes and general wilderness. I mean this quite literally: they must have written tens of thousands of songs and poems about nature. Sometimes it seems like you can either adore Sweden with complete abandon, or hate it with the pessimism of psychological thrillers, also produced in great numbers by the Swedish. The special thing about Marianne Fredriksson’s work is that there is a bit of both: love for her country to a point and criticism without desperation. The combination of these different aspects brings forth the best in the Swedish writing tradition and negates at least in part the excesses.
Like I mentioned, Marianne Fredriksson is at her best when writing complex characters. Following them throughout the book will let you see them develop, but also make you discover new and unexpected sides to them, that they possessed all along. There are many interesting characters in this book, but one of them jumps out: Karin, Simon’s mother. She is a wonderfully soft, caring woman, not a saint, but just kind. She has built a family out of love and sheer willpower and keeps adding new members to it by welcoming them in her house. She is truly the person that holds all the main characters together, and to accomplish that she will cross some boundaries. This flawed mother is one of the most sympathetic characters in the book, to me more so than Simon himself, who can be quite callous. By a lovely coincidence, Karin also happens to be the name of the wonderful woman who gave me this novel.
Karin is the best among many parents, and the relationships between them and their children form a theme throughout the book. It turns out that there are many ways in which a parent can fuck up and as many ways in which a child can judge and punish his or her parents for that. The parents in the story all display different levels of selfishness, harshness and unrealistic expectations. Their children in turn react as young people will and don’t make the situation any better. Seeing these developments in every parent-child-relationship in the book is slightly dispiriting. But then, very subtly, some things start to improve. It doesn’t develop into more than the possibility of forgiveness, but to me that was enough to make Simon and the Oaks quite dear to me.
Cinderella Award, for all the bad parenting going on (and to celebrate just desserts)
Marianne Fredriksson, Simon och ekarna (Stockholm, 1985)