As a child, I'd sit in rapt attention when my Danish mother read Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales. Scandinavia, I learned from his stories, was where wishes came true. Today, with the popularity of Stieg Larsson's blockbuster Millennium trilogy and the wave of Nordic crime fiction that has taken America by storm, it's easy to think that all of Scandinavia has gone to the dark side. In the countries where enchantment ruled, now serial murder and corporate trickery abound. But not all Nordic novels have traded enchantment for suspense. Here are three books that give you a look into the everyday Nordic world: the way people live and work and love.
Silence In October
By Jens Christian Grondahl, paperback, 304 pages, Mariner Books, list price: $17.95
Take Jens Christian Grondahl, author of 17 books and one of Denmark's great contemporary novelists. Silence in October, the first of Grondahl's novels to be translated into English, is a Proustian meditation on the broken marriage of a nameless narrator whose wife has inexplicably left him. The narrator seeks clues to his wife's whereabouts from her credit card charges, and revisits his memories of their two decades together to understand why she's gone. As the narrator slowly reveals the unacknowledged truth of the relationship, Grondahl's elliptical narrative becomes increasingly complicated. Is the narrator really the guileless, dedicated husband the reader meets at the story's start? There is beauty in this melancholy tale of love, loss and memory. "We still don't give weight to the fact that our story is getting longer than our future," the narrator despairs. This elegant novel speaks to the wrongs that couples try to make right through silence. It suggests that the real crime in a marriage is to fool ourselves about the purity of love.
The Summer Book
By Tove Jansson, paperback, 176 pages, NYRB Classics, list price: $14
Love animates Tove Jansson's enchanting illustrated novel, The Summer Book. It tells of 6-year-old Sophia and her aging grandmother, who while away languid summer days on a small island in the Gulf of Finland, as Jansson did growing up as part of the country's Swedish-speaking minority. Sophie loves her grandmother's easy companionship as they explore the Finnish island forest — not technically part of Scandinavia, I know, but still so close to their Swedish homeland. There they build a miniature Venice in a bog, and carve boats out of branches and driftwood. Told in a series of vignettes, The Summer Book is a slim and humorous novel. Jansson, a celebrated Finnish illustrator and author of the Moomin children's books series, has created a winning character in Sophia, a girl in search of answers big and small. When Sophia dictates to her grandmother her definitive treatise on angleworms who become split in half, she declares: "Nothing is easy when you might come apart in the middle at any moment." Like the classic, The Little Prince, The Summer Book is indeed charming, but it is also wise.
By Nella Larsen, paperback, 192 pages, Penguin Classics, List Price $12
Quicksand, by Nella Larsen, is a small masterpiece of a debut. Larsen, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black West Indian father, draws on her own background to tell the tale of Helga Crane, a woman who straddles two races and cultures, and is seeking her place in the world. The story starts when Helga abruptly resigns from her teaching job at a Southern black school in America. She travels to the North to work but soon becomes disenchanted by what she considers the hypocrisy of the black bourgeoisie. The peripatetic Helga then moves to Copenhagen to reunite with her Danish relatives. A brown-skinned beauty, Helga causes a stir in Danish society. It is here that Quicksand — published 80 years ago — provides a fascinating look at how differently Europeans and Americans think of racial difference. Helga quickly adapts as a "true Copenhagener," bicycling through the city's "toy-like streets." But will she overcome her homesickness, "not for America," as she says, "but for Negroes"? Quicksand is a compelling read, a kind of bridge to understand the distance between the Scandinavian experience and the American imagination of it.
Heidi Durrow is the author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky and the 2008 winner of the Barbara Kingsolver Bellwether Prize for Literature of Social Change. She is the daughter of Danish and African-American parents.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman, Lena Moses-Schmitt and Amelia Salutz.