Reviewed by Harriet
Last year I read and loved Cecila Ekbäck’s debut novel, Wolf Winter – you can see my review here and my interview with Cecilia here. So I was thrilled to be offered a review copy of this new one. Second novels are notoriously problematic — would this one measure up? Luckily the answer is a resounding yes.
As you can probably guess from her name, Ekbäck (who writes in English) was born in Sweden, in a small northern town, to parents who originated in Lapland, which is the northernmost area of Finland. The country has an indigenous population, the Lapps or Sami people, but for centuries has been colonised by settlers from Sweden and elsewhere. Ekbäck is fascinated by the history of her motherland, and both her novels are set in the country’s past. The previous novel took place in the 18th century, and this one moves forward to the mid-19th, but both are situated in the vicinity of the fictional mountain known as Blackäsen. At this remote outpost arrive Magnus Stille, a geologist, and his troubled young sister-in-law Lovisa Roseblad. Magnus has been dispatched there from Stockholm by his father-in-law, the State Minister of Justice. Ostensibly this is to map the mountain, but also he is secretly to investigate a most bizarre event – three inhabitants of the village have been found dead in a room, with the murderer, an aged Lapp, sitting silently beside them.
In Ekbäck’s first novel we lived through the terrifyingly cold and interminable winter, but here we are in June, the month of the midnight sun. It never gets dark, and Magnus is unable to sleep at all. As his fatigue and disorientation increase, so events seem to conspire to confuse him still further. He and Lovisa encounter Ester, an old Lapp woman who has become separated from the rest of her tribe and is mourning the death of her husband Nils. She becomes Magnus’s guide on the mountain, and also takes Lovisa under her wing, but her view of the world and of what is right action differ radically from that of the city dwellers.
Magnus and Lovisa, both deeply troubled in their different ways, are wonderfully conceived characters. Magnus, adopted at the age of three by the man who is now his father-in-law, has no memory or knowledge of his own origins. He’s intelligent but conventional, and has problems understanding both the settlers, grimly determined to keep silent about any possible reasons for the murders, and Ester, with her rootedness in the landscape that he is studying from such a very different perspective. Lovisa, too, is a puzzle to him – her father has sent her off with Magnus as a punishment for obviously aberrant behaviour though it takes time for us to learn what that was. She is a confused and unhappy girl, given to stealing small items from people’s houses, and finding it hard at first to communicate with her much older brother-in-law. Their relationship changes radically as the days go by, partly as a result of the influence of Ester. Lovisa has a much more intuitive understanding of the Lapps and their ways than Magnus does, and seems to be able to tune into their other-worldly dimension of communication. Both characters change tremendously during the relatively short period covered by the novel, and what either of their futures will hold is left tantalisingly uncertain, though we can’t help feeling it can only be one of greater openness and honesty.
This is a tremendously rich novel, incredibly evocative of a very different time, place and world view. The conflict between the Lapp people and the setters is very vividly set out — the Lapps are looked down on as an inferior race, but they have a deep wisdom which is far beyond anything that can be comprehended by their so-called superiors. Their relationship with the beautiful, harsh environment in which they live is the polar opposite to that of the settlers and incomers: they honour every part of it and are appalled that anyone would want to change it. They hold onto the old customs, ultimately rejecting the Christianity that has been imposed on them, as is shown when Ester’s husband Nils dies:
We give him the ancient burial. None of us suggests that we imprison the man who led us under six feet of soil. Not even Sunojar says we ought to take him to the village to be put in Holy Ground. Our fingers work to some forgotten cadence; wrap his body in bark – the dry wood against our hands smooth as water and coarse as rock. We lay him into his sleigh and lift it in a hollow tree trunk on the ground. Then we stand in silence.
All this is conveyed in the novel with great sensitivity, and the extraordinary landscape of mountain and forest take on a vivid life of their own, so that Blackäsen becomes a character as memorable as any of the humans who populate the novel.
So – if you like the sound of a bit of historical Scandi noir, with more than a touch of the supernatural thrown in, you really should give this a go. I can’t wait to see what Ekbäck will do next.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Cecilia Ekbäck, In the Month of the Midnight Sun (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016). 978-1444789935, 368pp., hardback.
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