Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck’s first English-language collection of short fiction, Jagannath, is getting a great deal of buzz in speculative fiction circles, and with good reason. This is one of the most beautiful and most provocative collections I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the weirdest, and honestly? I’m not sure I can do the stories or the writing justice here, but I’m going to give it a go.
There are lots of words that come to mind that I might use to describe these stories—fantastical fairy tales comes closest to what they’re like, but even that’s not quite right. Let me put it this way: sometimes there are primal creatures that live on the edge of our world. Sometimes the humans are the primal creatures. Sometimes there are fantasy creatures whose contact with humans leaves them confused or worse. Sometimes the humans live in worlds adjacent to ours, and sometimes creatures live in worlds adjacent to ours, and sometimes they live in our world, but we either don’t know of them or dismiss them as myths. Time is upside down sometimes, or doesn’t run at all. And once in a while, all of those things happen and just sort of bleed together, like a watercolor left out in the rain.
Or I could just quote from “Aunts”, a story that is so very, very disturbing, and yet somehow organically beautiful in the horror:
“In some places, time is a weak and occasional phenomenon. Unless someone claims time to pass, it might not, or does so only partly; events curl in on themselves to form spirals and circles.”
Tidbeck’s focus is on love and longing, but only sometimes of a romantic sort. There is love, and longing for love, and love for a friend, love for a child, longing for a child, a child’s longing to find her place in the world, or in a family, or a family looking for that missing child; there is a longing for death, for life, for answers. That may seem really mundane, but in Tidbeck’s weird worlds, it’s anything but. In the steampunk-influenced “Beatrice”, for example, a man’s longing for love leads to him romancing an airship—a romance that turns dark and ugly. Or there is “Cloudberry Jam”, in which a woman grows a carrot into something vaguely resembling the human child she wants so much. Stories like this speak volumes about the human experience—how flawed we are, how our emotions shape our every behavior. Both of those stories’ concepts are weird, you have to admit. They are also both delightful, especially “Cloudberry Jam”, whose ending should be sad, but instead is somehow uplifting. That’s the great thing about this collection. Up is down and round is square.
Or time doesn’t move. In “Augustus Primus”, the title character lives in a baroque world where time not only never moves forward (or backward, or at all), it has no definition—the characters are completely unaware of time, or even the possibility of it. They do not age. They do not change at all, really. Their externals only differ in terms of who gets injured in the ongoing croquet games (which remind me of Alice, except there are no flamingoes) that take place all the time, games where the object is to injure the spectators and other players. Imagine not having time. You just—are. Mechanical objects do not work in this world—they cannot work, in fact—so when Augustus finds a strange object in a dead man’s pocket, she cannot identify it for what it is: a pocket watch. And once she becomes aware that time is something that can be measured, she naturally wants to know more. But if knowledge is power, it is also, in this case, an element of change. “Augustus Primus” and “Aunts”, a companion story set in the same world, really mess around with the concept of time in a thought-provoking way. To me, they were the two most interesting pieces in what is a very strong collection of stories.
Tidbeck looks at loss from a variety of angles. In “Some Letters for Ove Lindstrom”, the title character’s daughter returns to the remote location where her mother disappeared many years previously, the same location where her recently deceased father met her mother when she appeared out of nowhere—and to which he returned annually hoping she would appear again. The daughter, Viveka, returns in an attempt to understand her father’s loss and place it in the context of her own, only to gain an understanding of his hope instead. In “Arvid Pekon”, a bureaucrat loses his sense of himself—literally by the end. And in “Rebecka”, set in the time after the Second Coming, a young woman, raped and tortured by her husband, has lost all hope for herself and all hope in God.
Each of these stories peels back layers and layers of basic emotions to reveal just how complex even the most simple of them can be. The best example of this is “Herr Cederberg”, a deceptively simple piece of writing about a middle-aged man, short and rather rotound, whose appearance resembles a bumblebee, and his interest in kite-building. A simple statement by two young girls he overhears while eating his lunch on a park bench one day propels him to attempt what we think is impossible—he attempts to turn himself into a bumblebee. In four pages, Tidbeck captures his feelings as he moves forward with his plan—his lack of self-worth, his determination to put his skills to the test, his need to be more than Herr Cederberg, the man who merely resembles a bumblebee. It’s “The Metamorphosis”, but turned a quarter turn to make what should be a sad story of a pathetic man into one where hope and dreams elevate even the most commonplace person into something grand and glorious—a marvel of nature.
All of the stories are like this—no matter how disturbing, how monstrous, how pitiable the characters and their situations or behaviors are, there is a layer of something positive shimmering just below the surface of each—if the reader is willing to both look for it and adjust their preconceived notions of what constitutes “positive”. Tidbeck’s weirdly beautiful worlds and characters certainly challenge the conventional in nearly every way. I really recommend these stories. I flat out loved them.
A copy of this book was generously provided by the publisher for review purposes.