Amatka / Karin Tidbeck; translated from the Swedish by Karin Tidbeck.
New York: Vintage, c2017.
Weird and wonderful. That's this book in brief. I picked it up at work by chance, not knowing a thing about it. Seeing that it was a speculative novel and a good pick for my Women in Translation project, I checked it out, and started reading.
I didn't really understand what was going on at all, until halfway through. But it was disorienting in the best possible way; all expectations were suspended as I tried to get a handle on this new world that Tidbeck was creating.
We start out by meeting Brilars Vanja Essre Two, a woman travelling from the main colony of her world to one of the other four colonies, the cold and outflung Amatka.
We don't know much about how these colonies got to this world, or why. We do know that there were five colonies to begin with, but one had a disastrous encounter with the name they chose for their settlement, so then there were four.
Names and language play a key role in this book; on this planet there are limited amounts of 'good' materials brought with the colonists; everything else has its name written on it, and things must be marked and named continually, to keep its shape. A suitcase has a label with "suitcase" written out, which must be touched and named aloud regularly. Otherwise, items will revert to a primordial 'gloop'. And if there is an error in naming, chaos may ensue.
Into this setting comes Vanja, putatively to do some corporate research into hygiene product needs. Residents of Amatka are bemused by this, as all the colonies are Soviet style communes, with one basic product generally available to everyone in the same way. Children are raised in children's houses apart from their parents; jobs are assigned and followed by rote; even leisure time is scheduled and communal. There are those who rebel against this life -- but by choosing not to fall in line and uphold the marking and naming, by questioning or using language outside of allowable parameters, one becomes a danger. The state deals with this humanely, with lobotomies.
However, Amatka is struggling, as this small community recently lost 100 settlers in a terrible accident. Or was it? Vanja starts to wonder what is actually going on in her new home, and begins investigating, with help from the local librarian, who is also a secret rebel. There is more to this new planet than first apparent.
This is a mystery, a dystopia, a psychological novel, a social commentary. The ending is variably interpretable -- you could read it as positive and triumphal, or terrifying and psychologically dangerous, depending on your view of the society and its rules which Tidbeck presents throughout the lead up to the sudden explosion of action in the closing pages. I'm still not sure which I think it is...
I really enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to anyone who reads speculative fiction. Its unique sensibility really sets it apart, and makes it unforgettable. For a book about the power of language, its own language is subdued but nonetheless powerful in shaping the reading experience. I haven't been so unsettled and uncertain about a story for a long time -- and I loved it.