Swedish novelist Swärd’s American debut chronicles the slightly off-kilter friendship between a young girl from an unconventional Swedish family and an older boy who has immigrated to Sweden from Hungary with his father.
Before her birth in 1969, Lo’s extended family moved to the more refined south from hardscrabble northern Sweden at the urging of Lo’s paternal grandfather, Björn. His son is Lo’s father, David, but the love between Lo’s parents is shadowed by the unspoken, unconsummated passion between Lo’s mother, Katarina, and Björn. Raised in a household of 13 adults—her parents, her grandparents on both sides and various aunts and uncles—Lo remains happily swathed in the family’s love and protection until she is 6, when she meets Lukas at a fire that has broken out in the village. Already 13, Lukas seems younger since he has barely been domesticated. He lives with his father, who speaks no Swedish and beats him. After he rides her home on his bicycle, Lukas and Lo form an immediate bond. Lukas is every mother’s nightmare—too old, too wild—and Lo’s family forbids their friendship. Lo is an able if disinterested student; Lukas can barely read. But Lo remains undaunted in her loyalty. For years, she and Lukas meet regularly at the abandoned cabin in the woods. They watch Katarina’s favorite French film Breathless and swim naked in the stream. They are physically at ease with each other’s bodies, but even after Lukas reaches horny adolescence, there’s no sexual experimenting. At 15, Lo travels to Copenhagen with Lukas, now a working adult, at least on the surface. His physical desire manifests itself. But his love remains pure. Lo’s does not. And her betrayal haunts her into adulthood. Interspersed with Lo’s recollections of her childhood are descriptions of her wandering adulthood and loveless adult sex life.
The sensual but grim story of damaged souls never rises above a simmer.