This is basically the world’s longest magazine article. I kept reading because the author had a great idea for a book: we in the English-speaking world are always idealizing the Nordic countries, but we don’t actually know much about what it’s like to live there, nor do we visit them very often or learn their languages. So the author, a Brit married to a Dane and living in Copenhagen, proposed to travel around these countries and report on, as the bookjacket claims, “how they may not be as happy or as perfect as we assume.”
Which could have been great, if it weren’t so light and frivolous. Aside from giving a brief overview of the history of each of the five countries included (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland), chapters cover topics such as a visit to a sauna; a visit to Santa’s Village; traditionally-dressed revelers celebrating Norwegian Constitution Day; and a visit to a supposedly dangerous housing project occupied by Muslim immigrants in Malmö, which turns out to be pretty quiet and unremarkable when the author visits in the middle of the day and doesn’t actually talk to any immigrants other than the elderly Macedonian who heads the local mosque.
The book does briefly explore various issues – immigration, the rise of right-wing politics, high levels of taxation and government involvement in society, the causes of Iceland’s economic woes – mostly through talking to a small group of writers and professors who give rather fuzzy impressionistic answers. But he never does really get “behind the myth” in the way I expected. After his stroll through the housing project, he observes that its Swedish neighbors, said to resent the immigrants, “probably faced precisely the same problems as their immigrant neighbors in Herregården – poor education, few opportunities, little hope, and no money – yet each was fearful and resentful of the other.”
Wait. Stop the presses. This is it – this is “behind the myth.” Sweden isn’t supposed to have people, especially native-born ethnic Swedes, with “poor education, few opportunities, little hope, and no money.” Isn’t that the entire point of the welfare state? Isn’t that the heart of the “myth”? And yet Booth just keeps tripping blithely along, talking about views on immigration and even including a chapter entitled “Class” that turns out to be all about the weirdness of the Scandinavian monarchies. In another baffling omission, he observes that a Norwegian museum “featur[es] the usual Nordic tiptoeing around the subject of their oppressed indigenous minority,” then proceeds to describe the exhibit, note the Sami’s territory and numbers, and never mention them again. I checked the index just to make sure and yep, this is the only mention in the entire book. How you can think you’re writing a book about a region’s negative aspects and not include its generational poverty or oppressed indigenous minority, I have no idea. But on to Legoland!
The book is very focused on the author’s own experiences and observations, while some of his theories are just wacky. For instance, he theorizes that Finnish men drink too much because their country has a long history of foreign rule and military defeat, never mind that this does not appear to affect modern-day Finns in any way. He even writes about floating this theory to others, who all shoot it down, which doesn’t stop him from devoting a full two pages to defending it in the book.
Now sure, if you are looking for a lighthearted travelogue that will introduce you to a few cultural concepts, and fill you in on a bit of history and politics, this may be the book for you. I didn’t find it as funny as others did, perhaps because it relies heavily on pop culture references that don’t mean anything to me (“Swedish unemployment figures are about as reliable as Joan Collins’s age”). The book is just so long, without achieving any real depth, that at times I considered not even finishing it. I did learn some things from it, but I would have appreciated it more if it had been pared down and marketed as the lighthearted travelogue that it is.