Less than two weeks into the new year, and somehow, I’ve already read two books that deal with Sweden’s choice to remain neutral during World War II: Annika Thor’s Deep Sea and Jessica Lidh’s The Number 7. Deep Sea deals with it in a more tangential way—as its protagonist is a young Jewish refugee, there’s more of a focus on her struggle to integrate into Swedish society and life while also staying true to her own self, history and identity—and it’s just as lovely as the Kirkus review promised, so much so that I’m already planning to go back and read the first two books in the quartet. The Number 7—which I mentioned in a new titles round-up last year—deals with it head-on, and that aspect of the book was completely successful. Other parts of it…well, I’ll get to that.
After the death of her estranged paternal grandmother, 16-year-old Louisa’s father packs the family up and moves them from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, into his old childhood home. Despite her father’s “being brave means never looking back” philosophy, Louisa finds herself thinking more and more not only about her own past, but about the grandparents she never knew. And then she starts getting mysterious phone calls. On a phone that isn’t plugged in. From her dead grandmother, who isn’t interested in making conversation, but in telling a story.
The dead grandmother’s segments are, hands down, the strongest part of the book. Her narrative voice is distinct and immediately compelling, the description is crisp and Technicolor-bright, the emotions of her characters have immediacy and depth, and she never resorts to didacticism to explain a complex political situation. She isn’t telling her own story, though, she’s telling her husband’s story—he lost the ability to speak years before his death—and while we never really get many details about her, the strength in her voice is palpable.
Although it has strengths—the book contains veritable buckets of empathy, and Louisa and Greta’s relationship nicely parallels the sibling relationship in the WWII thread—the framing story is far more wobbly. I could have talked my way through the Coincidence Overload (their father’s romantic interest also just happens to be a psychic) and the Huge Issue Waved Away Into The Cornfield (Louisa’s sister’s self-harm and/or suicide attempt was never really addressed). But the fact that almost all of the contemporary-era characters spoke in the same way—strangely formal, with such awkward word order that I double- and triple-checked to be sure that The Number 7 wasn’t originally written in another language—threw me out of the story again and again.
Three examples, from three different characters:
“He admired more the man who built the house than the one who lived in it.” (54)
“I wonder, you know…what is it about someone that enables her to be so noble? Which part of her makeup, her framework, decides to risk living and breathing for someone else? Is it a loose screw or a secure bolt?” (112)
He’d been published before, more times than was standard for community college professors, but I knew Dad’s intellect begot boredom if he didn’t keep busy. (191)
That tendency, along with a liberal dose of adverbs (“...she sneered accusingly…”(122)), gives Louisa’s story a distinctly V.C. Andrews feel, if you can imagine a mostly chaste V.C. Andrews book. So, while the WWII-era thread is undoubtedly and undeniably strong, your enjoyment of the book as a whole will depend on your tolerance for that sort of thing.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.