A depressing forest of loneliness growing below everything else

Polyglot LoversThe Polyglot Lovers
by Lina Wolff
translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel

This is my second book for my EU Reading Challenge, this time tackling Sweden (though the book is set in three countries and includes lines from several more languages, as befits its title). It’s a strange, compelling tale told with a sense of humour.

The book starts brilliantly, with 30-something-year-old Ellinor recounting her dabbles in Internet dating, which lead her from small-town southern Sweden to Copenhagen to Stockholm. I loved Ellinor and her voice, her self-awareness. There is both strangeness and ordinariness in her story. The bulk of it is about a date that turns into a creepy, potentially dangerous situation. It manages to be both upsetting and empowering, following how Ellinor deals with the situation.

“Sometimes he read people’s messages to each other. And it would make him so sad he’d be useless for the rest of the day. As though his heart was enlarged and misshapen, its edges jutting into his chest, and all he wanted to do was cry…You see how one person writes to lots of others, keeps writing, gets cancelled on, breaks down…Hopeless, the guy who worked there said it was. Damn hopeless. And he said an undergrowth emerges, a depressing forest of loneliness growing below everything else.”

The descriptions of the locations in the book are wonderful, and specific to the narrator’s voice. So Ellinor finds Copenhagen pleasingly rough and ready, while she finds Stockholm cold both literally and figuratively. She finds people in Stockholm puzzling, musing “A cinematic city demands cinematic people”. But the people in Stockholm consider her a country hick.

About halfway through the narrator switches to the second of its three voices. It becomes clear that the whole book centres around a manuscript (called The Polyglot Lovers) that may or may not be a masterpiece. Frankly the other voices didn’t speak to me in the way that Ellinor had and I didn’t find the story of the manuscript nearly as interesting as Ellinor’s date-gone-wrong.

“There are events that act like nodes in our lives, that definitively and irrevocably alter us. There are people who trigger these events and who might be on the periphery, blurred faces in the background of a photo, until one day you realize they’ve always played a central role. It’s rare to notice the tremendous weight of certain moments as you’re living them. How they rise up like towers and cast other moments in shadow.”

That’s not to say it’s a bad book. It’s packed with weird characters, mostly gripping, often funny and insightful. I particularly enjoyed the fact that all three narrators take a moment to thoroughly lay into French author Michel Houellebecq. I found these attacks hilarious. (It’s a while since I read him but I suspect the accusation of sexism is justifiable. I actually have one of the books analysed by Wolff’s narrators in my TBR.)

I’m definitely interested in what else Wolff has written, as the first half of this book was my favourite read in April.

De polyglotta älskarna published 2016 by Albert Bonniers Förlag.
This translation published 2019 by And Other Stories.

Source: I subscribe to the publisher.

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