The Blackbird Sings at Dusk by Linda Olsson (Penguin NZ, 2016), 253 pp., $38
Linda Olsson is Swedish by birth but has lived outside Sweden since 1986, and in New Zealand since 1990. Her first novel, Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs, was very favourably received and made some good circuits in the book-club scene. She has published two other novels since, with this latest, The Blackbird Sings at Dusk, published in Swedish in 2014. I have not read any of her previous novels, put off by the intense emotion that permeates the plots, the characters and their relationships with each other. Themes of love, loss, finding meaning in life, making connections with others and the different types of love we can experience characterise her novels, and while these are not bad things, it all just seemed a touch too gloomy, emotional and angst-ridden for me to want to choose these books for my leisure reading.
I know there are many devoted fans of Linda Olsson. Based on reviews I have read of her other books, this latest novel will be keenly read and enjoyed by those who like her work. The writing is very beautiful, lyrical, gentle, slightly hypnotic even. Set in Stockholm from late winter to August, there is an almost ethereal quality to the writing, casting a sort of magic light over the city, suggesting anything may be possible. Nothing in the writing seems forced, there is a natural flow to how conversations evolve, how stories are told through the dialogue, how relationships develop through the characters’ responses and reactions to each other. Sentences are short and uncomplicated, as are the chapters. It is easy to read, easy to put down, but also easy to pick up again.
The cover on the original Swedish edition features a blackbird, in a room, sitting on a hand. Compare it to the cover of this latest edition, with its orange silhouette of what could be any garden bird against a slightly clashing green background. A blackbird in a room? Perched and chirping on a hand? And yet it seems to me this illustrates much more effectively what the novel is about than the orange/green/generic bird cover, because the blackbird is central to the story, not only in its capacity as a songbird, but also as an analogy and personification of the main character, Elisabeth.
And perhaps, for the author, this creature is a symbol of her homeland, her own memories, what she has left behind in leaving Sweden, her personal identity. The blackbird became Sweden’s national bird in 1962, following a nationwide vote. This choice was reaffirmed in 2015 with another vote, just to make sure that the blackbird still reigned supreme fifty-plus years later, well ahead of its main rival, the magpie. (Oh, if only national referendums were always so easy …) The blackbird hides away during the colder months, reappearing in the spring with ‘its song … so beautiful. Sad and soothing at the same time.’
The speaker of these words is Otto, a widower in his late sixties who lives in an apartment building in Stockholm. Otto is a retired bookseller; his wife Eva has recently died. His is not an unsatisfactory life but there is a perceptive sadness; his existence seems a little pointless now that he no longer has his shop or a companion to share his life and the wonderful meals he cooks. He does have a lot of books, though, which he shares with Elias, a young man who lives in an apartment on the floor below. Elias is a gifted artist who works as a cartoonist/graphic novel illustrator. He is severely dyslexic, seeing his world through pictures and images, but does enjoy being read to by Otto and being Otto’s weekly dinner guest. Their Tuesday night meals are the highlight of Otto’s week. These two have a deep friendship, possibly on a par with an uncle–nephew relationship, mutually respectful and affectionate.
Elisabeth, however, is a sad and lonely woman, very depressed, although the reader does not find out the reasons for her deep unhappiness until the last quarter of the novel. It is January when she moves into the building. She’s silent, reclusive, solitary, eating her way through packet soups, surrounded by unpacked boxes, haunted in her dreams by the Woman in Green, with bills piling up. So, life is bleak for Elisabeth. There is nothing at this stage to tell us who she is, where she has come from, why she is in such a poor emotional and physical state.
The book begins in March, spring just starting to rise, the days getting a little less dark. Elisabeth’s contact with the outside world is forced upon her by a chance but unspoken encounter with Elias through the letterbox in her apartment door. Elias is ‘posting’ mail for her that has been inadvertently delivered to him. A book exchange follows, which then brings Otto into the triangle as the reader of the book gifted to Elias by Elisabeth. Now that a pattern of obligation has been set up, Elisabeth finds herself forced to continue this intangible and invisible contact for a few more book exchanges, until the day the paths of these three people cross quite suddenly and unexpectedly, when Elias is the victim of a homophobic attack.
As spring becomes summer the days grow warmer and longer, and so too the friendship between these three develops. Otto feeds them; they share books, music, friendship. The walls Elisabeth has built around herself very slowly and gently start to fall away. She removes the paper wad that was silencing her doorbell, opens her moving boxes and takes things out of them bit by bit; she starts to care for her appearance, she lets Otto do some shopping for her, and finally she ventures outside into the sunlight with him. And the blackbird returns to Otto’s window.
From his first contact with Elisabeth through the letterbox, Elias is captivated by her. Unable to use words to express himself, he has started sketching a blackbird. He has no idea where this is going, but is strangely attracted to this new arrival:
So I started drawing her. At first it was just a little sketch – for fun. Like doodling, you know? Then it turned into a dark shadow over dirty slushy snow. But now … Well, now it’s a story. The beginnings of a story anyway. I call it The Blackbird. In my drawing she becomes a bird. At first, a poor scruffy little bird that’s ended up in the wrong place, in every sense of the word. Half dead. And then … I couldn’t stop wondering what was going to happen to it. Why it ended up here in the middle of the winter. And where it was going.
The bird that Elias is compelled to draw is clearly an analogy for Elisabeth: injured, defenceless, delicate and weak, sometimes looking as if it is barely alive. And this becomes the driving force of the book: the half-dead/half-alive bird constantly lingering at the fringes of the story and of the friendships between Elisabeth, Otto and Elias. Much later in the story, Otto and Elisabeth talk about the drawings, how Elias is looking for someone to put words to his drawings, how Elisabeth thinks she could be that person:
I am frightened by them. Yes, they feel too close to me. Too personal. It’s as if Elias has drawn my life. But it might just be me reading something into them that he never intended … I felt I had to tell him that I could read his story in the drawings, and that it is also my story.
However, there is a fourth character in this story – the Woman in Green. She lives in Elisabeth’s mind, has done off and on since childhood, and with Elisabeth in her despairing state has taken up permanent residence. The Woman in Green does not like Elisabeth’s new friends, her increasing happiness, her finding the sunlight again. Elisabeth is clearly frightened of this presence and finds herself constantly being drawn back to her inner darkness and despair.
A typical exchange:
‘You fool. You are moving away, Elisabeth. And you will end up alone again. You know the dangers. The devastating pain connected with life out there. Are you sure that is what you want?’
‘No!’ she screamed. ‘That’s not what I want! I just wanted a little …’ The Woman in Green slowly shook her head. Her sadness was infinite. ‘There is no such thing, Elisabeth. You know that. You can’t just have a little life. It is life. Or no life.’
This constant push/pull between the Woman in Green and the blackbird as the symbol of new life, joy, lightness and happiness is at the very core of the novel, as they fight for Elisabeth’s essence. The ending, when it comes, is very ambiguous. How it is interpreted may well depend on the mindset of the reader at the time. How strange to think that, maybe, when the book is reread at some future time, the ending may be seen differently.
So, then, am I a convert to Linda Olsson? Partly. I have enjoyed this novel more than I expected to, despite finding Elisabeth irritating and despite not fully believing in her character. The extremes in her newfound happiness versus her intense sadness and hopelessness, and her quick switches between these two extremes, just did not sit right. There did not seem to be enough shades of grey in her emotional range. But I have not suffered with depression; it may well be that people do have such very different public and private faces. I guess we all do to a certain extent. Even though the main character is Elisabeth, I actually found Otto the most well-rounded and developed persona. Aside from being intensely likeable, he is the most motivated to make a change, is self-aware and very intuitive in his relationships with Elias and Elisabeth. I liked him a lot as, I suspect, will all Linda Olsson fans; I have no doubt they will enjoy this latest release immensely.
FELICITY MURRAY started producing book reviews a few years ago on her blog kiwiflorareads.blogspot.com. From that, she began doing online reviews for Booksellers NZ. She has a BA in history, a post-graduate diploma in banking, and a diploma in horticulture. She also does biography writing and compilations for terminally ill patients.