“It is through writing that one can begin to remember,” writes Agneta Pleijel. The Swedish poet, playwright, and novelist recounts memories focusing on her youth and teenage years. Young Neta’s story is narrated in the third person, evoking for the reader the separation that Peijel feels from her own history. The conflicts of those memories range from the seemingly mundane (not having the right kind of fuzzy hat to wear in the winter) to the very serious (dealing with her parents’ crumbling marriage and her mother’s inconsistent mental state).
This autobiographical novel beautifully encapsulates the oft-experienced solitude and confusion of youth, when any perceived slight twists itself into self-truth. In young Neta’s life, these slights are pervasive. She knows that she is a cause of her parents’ separation. She knows that she is a burden to her mother. She knows, but she does not understand, and she never feels comfortable asking for clarity. Neta’s journey – from questioning, anxious child to furiously independent teen to a woman who will become an award-winning writer – drives this memoir. The moments of triumph carry the reader through: Neta’s success as a crooning seductress in a high school musical revue; her Parisian marriage proposal; her determined money-earning efforts so she can be less of a burden to her family.
However, I found most of the story overwhelming bleak. The possible charm of jazzy parties in post-World War II Sweden is dissipated by Neta’s purposefully distant personality, every happy family memory is tainted by Neta’s conviction that she was such a primary reason for that family falling apart, and those relationships described as valuable by Peijel herself (not her third-person memory) are twisted by the distrust and iciness of Neta’s youth. The shiny, constant hope offered by the character of Neta’s Aunt Ricki dims and then dies, even as Neta is maturing as an artist.
Fans of Agneta Peijel will likely savor the illuminating prose. Those completely unfamiliar with her work, as I was, can still appreciate the story. It is not a beach read, but is thought-provoking in the shade or after sunset. Perhaps consume in the evening, when the veil to the past is thin but the present is calm. Our own stories – moments and years-long struggles – can be reflected on with the peace of hindsight and understood more thoroughly. Peijel’s novel encourages one to do just that, either by comparison or in solidarity.
Top photo: Agneta Pleijel, credit Maciej Zaremba
A Fortune Foretold