I received an ARC copy of this book prior to its publication and I voluntarily decided to review it.
This is not the first novel written by Hans Hirschi I’ve read. I’ve read The Fallen Angels of Karnataka, The Opera House, Willem of the Tafel, Spanish Bay… and, different as they are, have enjoyed them all. Mr Hirschi has the ability to create believable and engaging characters the readers care for, and he places them in backgrounds and situations that put them to the test. Sometimes the situation and the background might be familiar to a lot of readers, whilst on other occasions, we might know little about the place or the world they live in. And, Mr Hirschi’s books always draw attention to discrimination and oppression, making us question our beliefs and attitudes. This book is dedicated ‘to the oppressed minorities of the world’ and all the books I’ve read by this author could bear the same dedication.
I must confess to knowing little about the Sami community and their land, Sápmi, other than the images most of us might have of snow, reindeer and colourful clothing. The book opens with Nilas waking up to find his husband, Casper, dead in bed next to him. (I don’t consider this a spoiler, as it’s how the novel starts, after a brief introduction into Sami’s culture and history, and anybody who checks the beginning of the book will see it). Most of the rest of the book is taking up by his memories of his relationship with Casper, in chronological order, from 1982, when Nilas, a native Sami, goes to study in Stockholm, until the present. At the beginning of the story, he knows he’s gay but within his community, he hasn’t had much chance to experience what that mean in full, although he’s told his parents about it. One of the beauties of the book is that, although initially shocked by the news, his parents, from a tiny and many would think old-fashioned and traditional community, accept it (in fact, he discovers one of his uncles is also gay). At the other end of the spectrum, Casper, a Swedish student he meets in a bar in Stockholm, although living in a bigger community and seemingly a more cosmopolitan society, has not dared to tell his parents he’s gay as they are very religious and intolerant of anything other than what they see as the natural order. Nilas and Casper are made from each other, and the novel chronicles their relationships through episodes that illustrate events they go through, on many occasions linking them to events for the LGBT community in Sweden at large. We live with Nilas and Casper through the alarm of the AIDS epidemic, the uncertainty and the fear that an illness that seemed to target a specific group of the population created at the time. We also follow them through changes in career and moves, through the recognition of registered partnership and eventually gay marriage, through family disappointments, trips, success, heartache, illness and ultimately, death.
The relationship between Niles and Casper serves as a microcosm of the gay experience and history in Sweden (and, although with some differences, in many Western world countries). Theirs is an ideal relationship, their love stronger than anything. Although they are tested by external events, society, family, and work, they are committed to each other, exclusive and faithful from the beginning. (Perhaps this is an idealised relationship where there are some differences of opinion but these are quickly resolved and they are together against the world, especially at the beginning of the relationship). They are discriminated against at work, they have to face the AIDS crisis, family hostility (Casper eventually tells his family and he was right when he thought they wouldn’t accept it), assaults, put downs, incomprehension, insults, frustrations… They also find people who accept them and love them for who they are, mostly, at least at the beginning, people who have gay friends or relatives. And it’s true that studies show that exposure and knowledge are the best ways to fight discrimination and oppression. The lack of knowledge, the fear of anything or anybody different and unknown, the us against them mentality and the labelling as ‘other’ of those who aren’t like us are a sure recipe for intolerant attitudes.
The book is written in the third person, from Nilas’s point of view, and it contains beautiful descriptions of places (Sápmi, Stockholm and Gothenburg, the Maldives, Swedish islands, the house they move into…), reflections on nature, landscape, the importance of tradition, and what makes a place home and a people, our family and our community. We sometimes have to go a long way to discover who we really are and where we belong to. Mr Hirschi manages to balance the showing and telling by combining very personal experiences with more subjective and spiritual reflections.
I enjoyed the setting, the discovery of a place and a people I knew very little about (and judging by the author’s note at the end, I’d love to get to know more) and the way the characters and the story merge seamlessly to provide a personal, political (indeed, the personal is the political) and social chronicle of the recent events in LGBT history in Sweden. I particularly enjoyed the way Casper is adopted by the Sami community and how there is a parallel made between different types of oppression. This is an excellent book that could help younger generations understand recent LGBT history and will also raise consciousness about oppression and intolerance in general. And, we sure need it more than ever.