The international refugee crisis and the struggle to stay sober preoccupy roughly equal portions of this thoughtful first novel, which follows an American graduate student to Sweden in the fraught years 2014-15.
Unable to stay clean in the U.S., Jonas Anderson takes advantage of his dual citizenship and the concomitant free tuition to enroll at Lunds University, hoping a change of scenery will ease his craving for drugs. In fact, he still spends a lot of his time thinking about how great it would be to get high—true to life, no doubt, but not terribly compelling in fiction. Fortunately for Jonas and the novel, he also casts a sharp eye over the Swedish social and political landscape, noting that, while the Swedes resolutely and commendably welcome refugees flooding in from the Middle East, they are far more ambivalent about the Roma often found panhandling on street corners. Spotting other people’s hypocrisies is one of Jonas’ specialties, and it might serve him well if he ever gets back to his neglected creative writing, but so far substituting alcohol for drugs has done little to enhance his creativity. And he’s not a particularly admirable character himself; he freely admits that the main attraction of his German exchange-student girlfriend, Anja, is that she’ll be gone soon; temporary relationships work best for commitment-averse Jonas. Only after he moves to the nearby city of Malmö and impulsively signs up to teach Swedish and English to young refugees does he begin to think about people other than himself. He becomes particularly close with a boy named Aziz, and he learns to maneuver sensitively with children who have suffered and lost more than he can imagine. By the time the Paris terrorist attacks prompt the Swedish government to close its borders, we see that Jonas has achieved a new stability and sense of purpose—even though he’s not entirely sure of it himself.
A bit short on narrative drive, but Lichtman’s low-key treatment of two highly charged subjects is refreshing.