It’s hard to believe I haven’t already reviewed this book. I talked about Simon and the Oaks earlier, which you can read here. That book started off my fascination with Swedish author Marianne Fredriksson and I immediately moved on to Hanna’s Daughters. Like Simon and the Oaks, this book is an honest story about a family against the backdrop of Swedish history. Unlike Simon and the Oaks, this story focusses completely on women’s perspectives. Three of them, as is visible in the Swedish title: Anna, Hanna och Johanna. Three generations put next and across from each other through the bulk of the twentieth century.
Anna’s mother Johanna is on the brink of dying. She is very old and her memory and speech have gone. Anna, a middle-aged Swedish writer, tries to deal with the imminent loss of her mother. She still has so many questions she wants to ask her. About the village Johanna was born in, for instance: her mother was the daughter of a miller near the southernmost part of the border between Sweden and Norway. Johanna always told her daughter stories of the beautiful lake with the waterfall that made the mill move and the fairies that danced on the rocks and between the woods.
Anna wants to know the women she came from, who shaped her. After she finds an old picture of her grandmother, Hanna, the perspective of the book shifts and we learn about Hanna’s childhood. Her family was incredibly poor. The tiny village by the lake where they live was struck by famine and only slowly recovered while Hanna grew up. When she was twelve and worked on her uncle’s farm, she was violently raped by her cousin and became pregnant with a little boy. The girl and her son couldn’t count on pity from the harsh, taciturn villagers: she was deemed a whore and her son a bastard until a widowed miller, moved there from another region, saw fit to marry her. With her husband, she got more children: three sons and a little daughter. The girl is called Johanna, and she will be Anna’s mother.
When Johanna was a child, she still lived by the lake in her father’s house by the mill and, for a time when there was a war threat with Norway, in a cave without so much as a fire. But when she was eight years old, the family moved to Göteborg. There, she embraces modern life as much as she can. Her happy childhood becomes a fairytale, she reads and dreams of stories and love. Her mother, a living reminder of the poor country she comes from, is often a source of embarrassment to her. Hanna, though very content with the conveniences of life in the city, doesn’t believe in progress like people in the cities do. She is from a culture of no expectations, little hope and taking things as they come. Johanna has a city education and a city accent and believes in things like social security and pensions and love. The women clash like Anna will clash with her mother and her daughters will clash with Anna after that. But each generation cares for their children as best they can.
The two stories of Hanna and Johanna are woven together by chapters from Anna’s point of view. While she tries to reconcile with the loss of the women who went before her, she decides to write a book about the family history. We follow her as she researches the family heirlooms and pictures and ponders the many complex relationships. Although the story is largely psychological, it reads like a thriller. Dreamy passages with elements of magical realism are intertwined with grim reality in that typical style that Fredriksson has. When trying to summarise the story it sounds rather bleak, but in reality it grabs your attention from the first page. Yesterday I reread the beginning before starting this review, and before I knew it I was a 100 pages in.
I think part of the attraction of this book is that Fredriksson is clearly aware that people, specifically women, are so connected in the things they feel and are and think. For centuries, certain images and pieces of wisdom and character traits have been given from parents to their children. Religion in the village by the lake, for instance, is a strange mixture of different strands of Christianity and remains of ancient beliefs: rune witchcraft, and widespread but secret superstitions. This eclectic mixture is not judged in the book, nor is it romanticised. Fredriksson seldom does your thinking for you. It is however one of the many story elements that show how everything we do has its roots in an exponential amount of people that have gone before us. Whatever the characters go through, there is something comforting in that thought that runs through the book.
There are few relationships more complex than those between mothers and daughters. Fredriksson draws out all the little spoken and unspoken things that happen between the three generations of women with so much nuance and softness. The women learn how to hate, how to hope, how to criticize, how to forgive and how to grow old. To create three full, complete women’s lives with all their contradictions, faults and virtues in only 400 pages is something few authors can accomplish.
It’s refreshing to read a book that is so completely driven by female characters. However, Fredriksson does have the tendency to blame everything that goes wrong in her characters’ lives on their mothers. A husband cheats on his wife because of his distant mother, a boy becomes a rapist because of his doting mother, the main characters’ inability to talk about their feelings is inherited from generation on generation. I forgive Fredriksson for this because of how much love and support exists between the women also, but I don’t agree with her. All daughters resemble their mothers to a certain degree, but it’s not fair to trace every shortcoming back to our parents and if we do, our fathers ought to shoulder some of the blame.
There is a sense here of a women-only world that I am fascinated by. It is a wonderful thing on one hand, but might also be the reason why Fredriksson blames everything on women. I don’t think she means that women are worse creatures than men. It’s just… men are what they are in the universe of this book. Whether they’re bad or good men, the women in their families are still in inferior positions to them. So those women turn their attention to each other. They focus on what they can change in their lives and who they can interact with, and this is a female world that consists of kitchens and churches and babies and baking. It is not a pathetic world but one full of meaning and strength and life. The other side of the coin is that they will criticize the women, who they might be able to change, and forgive the men, who they have no control over, regardless how badly those men behave.
I live in a world where, luckily, great steps have been taken in equality between men and women. Though there is still a lot of work to be done, I can see how far we’ve come and I am grateful for the good men in my life. But part of me longs for that female world that, in my culture, is now almost forgotten. There is a camaraderie, a wordless understanding and natural support in good times and bad ones that is now lost. I think Fredriksson still knew that world, even if her generation was trying to be free of it. And I don’t mean we should turn back time, because back then it was a necessity in the face of great pain and lack of agency. I just think we should think about keeping the good things, like loyalty and that particular female strength, while discarding the inequality and adding some diversity in our lives.
Marianne Fredriksson is careful about not making you nostalgic about old times and not overly trusting in modernity either. She does make you think about the people we’re connected with and the shapes love can take. She proves that you don’t have to be overly verbose or melodramatic to write about a family history. So I won’t become sentimental about this book – but heavens, how I love it.
Call the Midwife Award for nailing the circle-of-life theme
Marianne Fredriksson, Anna, Hanna och Johanna (Stockholm, 1994)