A Swedish writer and poet well known in her native land makes her U.S. debut with a serenely ironic memoir about life in a small Breton town.
In 2000, 55-year-old Malmsten took her Swedish pension and headed south from central Norrland on the trans-European motorway to find a new life. She carried little with her except a love of history and a sense of social justice, qualities evident throughout these delightfully meandering reflections. Somewhere near Brest, in France, Malmsten discovered a parcel of paradise “where the land comes to an end in Europe—fin des terres, finis terrae—Finistère” and proceeded to dig in. She gradually fashioned an elaborate garden (despite the high price of water) with the help of gardening books in several languages, plans she drew up herself and well-meaning neighbors eager to dispense advice. One important daily visitor was the exquisitely elegant widow Madame C, who gently corrected the author’s French-in-progress and first planted the idea of writing a book about Finistère. The author reflects here on the advantages and disadvantages of being a stranger. She describes the Swedish welfare state and a maddening confrontation with the Social Insurance Office (dubbed by its victims “the Social Insulting Office”) that led to her emigration. She portrays the family members who have shaped her character: Grandma, who had large hands and a beautiful peony garden, and Malmsten’s privileged father, who joined the international socialist organization Clarté in the 1930s. The author shared his principles enough to abruptly break with Monsieur Le R, a fellow gardener and admirer, when he revealed a racist nature. Yet in her text she expresses both admiration and revulsion for Sultan Mehmet of Istanbul, a brutal dictator but a gorgeous gardener. No matter how serious her reflections, Malmsten always delivers them with a light touch, and she’s perfectly willing to laugh at herself, especially when recounting hilarious faux pas in her adopted language.
Deft and stylish.