Sunday, March 20, 2011

Astrid & Veronika

Astrid & Veronika / Linda Olsson
New York: Penguin, c2005.
259 p.

This is the first book I've chosen to read for the Nordic Challenge. I've had it on my list of to-reads for quite some time, though. And I finally got my hands on a copy and found it well worth the wait.

Linda Olsson is a Swedish writer who lives in New Zealand and wrote this while living there. She suggests that it was in part the experience of being so distant from the place in which the story is set that allows her to create such a convincing and atmospheric setting. It is richly presented, absolutely.

Veronika is a young writer who has come to stay in a rented house in a small village in central Sweden. Next door is the village recluse, Astrid, who rarely interacts with others and only slowly warms to Veronika. They are both hiding secrets and pain, but seem to understand one another somehow, and come to be friends. Their age difference is leapt over by the compatibility of their personalities, and the months that Veronika spends there lead to healing for both of them.

The book is written in a spare manner -- the extreme grief and loss they've both suffered is made clearer with such a style; the story could have become maudlin or sentimental, but Olsson carefully presents the facts dispassionately. At the same time, she uses poetry to open each chapter, and shows a depth of feeling in each character that reveals their emotion without becoming sappy. The story discusses relationships, love, loss, memory, meaning.....many deep issues, in a precise and beautiful way. Both Astrid and Veronika begin to share fragments of their pasts and their stories fill in slowly and unavoidably - you know you are going to learn something painful but it seems natural and timely when the information arrives.

I found both these characters well constructed, and the setting evocative. The midsummer celebrations with long, light evenings; the swimming hole that Astrid and Veronika walk to in the summer heat and then take a dip; the food they eat and drink; even the interior of both their houses...all of these were so real and strongly present in the story. The cover of the book I read is quite eye-catching, and as I read I found the significance of the image chosen. Astrid has a patch of wild strawberries in her yard, overgrown, that she had transplanted from the forest years before. With Veronika's coming Astrid has recalled it, and opened a bottle of strawberry liqueur that she had made previously. She says:

"I didn't know I still had a bottle left. It's been so long. I didn't think there would be anything left behind the house, either. But when I checked the other day, I found it -- my strawberry patch -- overgrown and hidden under weeds but still there."

She lifted her glass and looked straight at Veronika. "Like secrets," she said. "Like memories. You can make yourself believe that they have been erased. But they are there, if you look closely. If you have a wish to uncover them."

That is the premise of the entire book: a fortuitous, chance encounter allows both women to uncover their secrets and painful memories, and to heal each other through building a deep friendship. It's quite lovely and memorable in itself, with Astrid, especially, being a character I won't soon forget.


  1. This book is coming up as one of my book club's choices in July. I'm really looking forward to it, but I hadn't heard about it prior to their mentioning it or your post. Love to find the more 'elusive' book!

  2. I love this're right about the writing being spare, but it was such a moving story.

  3. I have had problems with the Scandinavian books I've read over the past twelve months. Nothing has seemed to work satisfactorily, so I'm a bit wary of trying another. Nevertheless, if I can get a copy from the library I'll give this a go and see if she can change my mind.

  4. Bellezza - I think you'll enjoy a discussion of this book...lots to it.

    softdrink - sometimes I find the emotional punch is much stronger when the style is restrained; doesn't feel so manipulative, at least to me. I thought Olsson did a great job.

    Annie - I hope it will work...but if it doesn't, there are many more to try that have different styles...eventually one might work out! :)

  5. At first, when I started into this, I wondered what all the fuss was about, but, as I read on, I was so caught up in the characters' lives, even brought to tears. Such a quietly powerful story.

  6. Buried in Print - I think 'quietly powerful' is a perfect description of this one.


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