The first page opens in an ER trauma room where Tom's pregnant partner Karin's clothes are being cut off and her vital stats are being called out. Anyone who's ever been in one of those rooms will instantly feel the claustrophobia, confusion and terror.
The crisis never ends. It gathers new crises to attach to itself, and in the midst of it all is a young man desperately trying to keep himself together and put one foot in front of the other. Karin had a rare and aggressive form of leukemia. Beneath a breathing mask, she tells Tom she wants to call the baby Livia, and her health (which was great days earlier) deteriorates rapidly. Very soon they induce a coma, transfer hospitals in order to get cutting-edge care, deliver her baby and perform multiple interventions to no avail. Soon she is gone and Tom is left alone with Livia. Tom, who has been living a rather charmed life becomes a widower and the single father of a premature infant in the span of days.
Tom Malmquist went through this exact same thing, and as such, it's very hard to read this as fiction and impossible to be dispassionate about the book. It's a fictionalized autobiography. I have no idea which parts are which beyond the broad strokes. There is nothing maudlin, some absurdity (ie, the baby has to bring a legal suit against Tom to become his daughter because Tom and Karin weren't married. They lived together for a decade. He'd had a DNA test, but the baby is not automatically his, despite the fact that he is the one caring for her. I would say "only in America" but apparently not.) We go from the main story to flashbacks of when Karin was alive. It feels real - that at these moments, Tom the character is remembering Karin, so the flashbacks of her work well. There are others of his father, who is also dying when the book opens, and the main timeline is straightforward but there are many branches on this tree, all culminating in the sketch of a life from childhood to present.
The final chapter is gorgeous and brims with love. It's set apart from the acute stages of the rest of the book and moves quickly through Livia's early years to her first days of staying alone at school. Tom has learned how to parent and while he says he feels like a bad parent, it's clear he is not. It's a compelling and tear-inducing final chapter full of poetry and hope.
Malmquist is a poet for real. Prose is a newer endeavor., and this story had to be prose. The book is in translation, and the translation feels very clunky at times. I can feel the poetry trying to break free, but it fails to do so, especially in dialogue. The writing doesn't always employ typical dialogue signifiers like breaks or quotation marks. This works extremely well when Tom is stressed and too much information is coming at him. But in the midst of something that could've worked well comes what may be an overly-literal translation. So everything is conveyed, but not always in the best of ways. When dialogue isn't being overly literal, the translation doesn't get in the way, but this is yet another book I would love to read in its original language.
No matter the translation, this is a universal story that works despite moments of clunky dialogue. Well worth keeping an eye out for anything else to come from Tom Malmquist.