The myth of Athena inspires a deeply melancholy portrait of a fractured family in the debut novel by Boström Knausgård (Welcome to America, 2019).
“I am born of a father. I split his head,” says Anna, the novel’s young narrator, as if she’d sprung from the head of Zeus. It’s a metaphor, of course: The split head of the girl’s father evokes the schizophrenia that will send him to an institution and her to a foster home. Yet Boström Knausgård brings the metaphor intriguingly close to reality. Though we’re in the author’s native Sweden, Anna has an inherent connection to Greek roots: She obsesses over a map of the Mediterranean, and her prophetic babbling at the church her foster family takes her to turns out not to be speaking in tongues but Greek. Regardless of Anna’s provenance, her life is shot through with a profound sense of longing for her father and a host of failed strategies to connect with him. Church only deepens her sense of distance. The letters he writes her reveal frustratingly little. And channeling her inner Athena feels like a false front. (“I must become stronger. So strong that I won’t be the one who is alone, rather those who avoid me will.”) The somber, flat tone of the narrative (ably maintained by translator Willson-Broyles) gives the reader plenty of room to interpret Anna as mad or misunderstood, and Boström Knausgård’s imagery is piercing (“My scream was like a storm. Like pouring rain. My scream was like a spear. Like a way out”). As she becomes increasingly desperate to escape the institutions that constrict her (churches, schools, hospitals) and reconcile with her father, the latter pages of the narrative become mordant, a touch repetitively. But it’s a moving trip to an emotional bottom.
A flinty, lyrical, and storm-clouded study of loss.