According to my usually reliable source, The Guardian, the trend in fiction is towards Up Lit. Readers, it appears, are a bit over the revelations of A Little Life and the nasty plot twists of Gone Girl. They want kind books, books about old lonely people going on journeys and making friends. Books along the lines of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry which was on the Booker long list in 2012.
Current titles are How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig, about his struggle with depression, and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, about loneliness and isolation. In my own attempt to read something diverting I chose a Finnish crime novel called Death in Sunset Grove, where the detectives were two ninety-plus year old women, Siiri and Irma, otherwise known as The Lavender Ladies Detective Agency. The setting in an old persons’ home was not convincing and there was a certain tweeness about it all. The suggestions of McCall Smith and Agatha Christie were not borne out and I soon abandoned it.
I have however read a warm and wonderful book in the last few months, Berlin Poplars, by Anne B Ragde. She is a Norwegian writer who is popular in her own country and who has published around thirty books, some for children. Berlin Poplars is the first of a trilogy about the Neschov family. It won the Riksmal Prize, a prestigious one in Norway. Unfortunately the other two books in the trilogy have not been translated into English.
The title of Berlin Poplars refers to a time when Norway was occupied by the Germans. They contemplated remaining in Norway and developing the backwater they were in. They planted lines of poplars to remind them of home, as well as trying to build factories which ultimately failed. But the poplars remained and grew strong and tall. Somehow this links with aspects of the novel where the past is shown to have a far reaching effect on the future.
The story opens with a woman, passionately waiting for her lover. Then we leave that scenario and turn to the people in the family.
The Neschov family is comprised of a powerful old mother, a weak and despised father, three brothers, long estranged, and a young woman, the almost forgotten child of one of the brothers.
The story proper opens with one brother, Margido, an undertaker, receiving a request for his services. We learn by his reaction that he is kind and sensitive, but reserved and introverted, The call was not for a regular death but one he dreads.
It turned out to be neither, but a young boy who’d hanged himself…In the background he could hear loud wailing: piercing , primitive. Sounds he was so familiar with: a mother’s cries.
We learn a great deal about Margido and his lonely life, before we move on to Tor, his older brother, who has remained with his mother to run the family farm. He has given up his dairy farming and has now moved into pig breeding. Here he is showing a new born piglet to his estranged daughter Torunn.
He detached a sleeping piglet, raised it in the palm of his hand and handed it to her. She received it as if it were a newborn baby. It was as warm as velvet to the touch, with a slight accent of milk. Its minute snout was pink and squeaky clean, its tail stood straight out from its tiny bottom. She raised it to her face, it blinked newly awake and made small whimpering noises as it breathed. Its eyes were bright blue under light-coloured lashes.
The third brother, Erlend, lives far away in Copenhagen. He is a window dresser with a passion for Swarovzski crystal unicorns and lives the good life with his male partner, Crumb. When the horn splits off one of his unicorns he is troubled, and sees it as a bad omen.
So why was he so anxious? It couldn’t be just because he’d become the owner of an extra crystal horse. He wanted to rediscover his Christmas spirit1 This was unbearable! He, who was usually so happy! In fact thoroughly spoilt by happiness!
And thus mother’s decline clears a space for questions to be answered, and brings these people together at the family farm. Can some kind of acceptance be achieved, can they celebrate Christmas together, what does the future hold?
Some of these questions are answered in Berlin Poplars but the story extends into Hermit Crabs and Pastures Green, both of which are still only available in Norwegian.
This book has a simple, but universal theme, and the writing, while concerning everyday lives, is as gripping as any thriller. No cosy happy ending here, but we are left with a deep compassion for the characters, normal human beings in all their complexity.
My best of the year so far.