Sweden has a long and illustrious history of producing brooding, melancholy, reflective artists who create equally brooding, melancholy and reflective work. Therese Bohman’s The Other Woman follows in this tradition, with a nameless young protagonist who, despite being a pretty girl who prefers white lace under her ugly work uniform, has a streak as dark as a winter night is long.
This character, more than a girl but not quite a woman, carries her world-weariness like a badge, seeing herself as different in a city full of people who are all the same. She longs for more in life but—perhaps as a result of her generational ennui or of her lower-class upbringing—finds herself unable to motivate herself. She wants to return to college to complete her degree, but doesn’t see how to make it happen. She wants to become a writer, as would suit a natural observer and dedicated outsider, but only seems to write at others’ behest.
She’s getting on, which is disappointing, but it’s sustainable, just like her best friend Emelie is disappointing, her job as a cafeteria worker in a local hospital is disappointing, her small apartment is disappointing. But it’s sustainable. She may quietly despise the people—mostly students—around her, as well as herself for continuing to go out among them, but she keeps it to herself. Until she meets Alex.
Alex is new to the area, a pretty, spirited classmate of Emelie’s. The protagonist narrator sees her as different and exotic. She likes her immediately. Soon Alex has all but replaced Emelie. An older man at the hospital, a doctor, catches her eye. She admires him from afar, then begins to construct small fantasies about him. Emelie warns her about dating married men. Alex wants to know all the details and encourages following desire over discretion. It’s all theoretical until the doctor, whose name is Carl, starts to show interest of his own. First, things get complicated. Then they get really complicated.
Most of the setting descriptions are limited to how the narrator feels about the place or the people who inhabit it. Her town embarrasses her, with its rundown waterway, the locals’ uneducated accent, its unending rain. Other than that, the reader is left to conjure a picture of this college town and what it takes for culture.
Are these kinds of details necessary? No, though they do help create a fuller, more vibrant world. But is Bohman interested in making this woman’s world a colorful one? I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer was negative. The weather is mostly wet, her job involves a damp and steamy kitchen, there’s a dank waterfront on the edge of town.
Water plays a large role in the book, even making an appearance on the cover. (Perhaps it is this heavy, waterlogged feeling that makes it such a good read for a cold winter day.) In a way it makes the warmth of new passion, the heat of a lover’s embrace, feel like life-giving air to someone who feels like she’s drowning in her everyday existence.
The Other Woman has been translated from the original Swedish by Marlaine Delargy. I’m unable to speak to the idiosyncrasies of Nordic linguistics, but I can say that this book might make an editor cross. Comma splices abound, and the clauses they attach are short and choppy. They could be sentences on their own, but then the tone could come across as juvenile. The result, anyhow, is to make the whole thing a bit flat, like the events and the narrator’s train of thoughts could be strung out without evoking any particularly strong emotions. However, that could also be the character—feeling a little flat and drawn-out herself—recording events in a diary-like shorthand.
Nevertheless, the story is engaging. The protagonist, despite her foibles and questionable choices, is endearing. Or perhaps it’s because of her foibles and questionable choices. While not a total train wreck, she gets herself into, and allows herself to be persuaded into, enough uncomfortable positions that you can’t help but feel for her sometimes. She can tell she’s walking a line and could be on the verge of catastrophe, but with so little to lose, why not enjoy a little adventure? And at 200 pages, little it is.
The Other Woman
Translated by Marlaine Delargey