The summer Arvid turns twelve, he’s on holiday with his parents and elder sister in the crowded flat above the milk shop, home to his maternal grandparents, in Jutland, Denmark. By birth, he’s Norwegian, but with his dark hair, characteristic of both the uncle who died before he was born and the Neapolitan baker’s son who emigrated two generations ago, he likes to tell people he’s Italian. Although he might not articulate it himself, identity is his primary preoccupation that summer, as he grapples with a new awareness of sexuality, both in himself and in others, and his existence separate from his parents.
Although narrated in the third person, the point of view is extremely close to Arvid’s with appropriately simple language describing the boyhood preoccupations of cycling, fishing and observing the world he barely understands. I couldn’t quite make up my mind how effective this is. After a shaky start, in which (consistent with the character but a bit distracting for the reader who’s just met him) we learn about his heroic ancestor, I relaxed into the simplicity of the voice. But, although the adult reader might make more of the hints than the boy himself, I was a little dissatisfied that I never fully understood the reason for the tensions between his parents and between his mother and hers.
First published in Norway in 1989, and now appearing in English thanks to Dan Bartlett’s translation and publishers Harvill Secker (who provided my review copy), it seems to be set about a generation earlier, when memories of the war are still vivid and only the wealthy had cars. Echoland is a quiet coming-of-age short novel with a shock in the final pages.
Please open up, it’s us. The collection for church repairs isn’t until next week, and they won’t come checking the meters till tomorrow morning.
I remember the excitement of the news from Poland in the early 80s as the wave of strikes challenged the decades of communist rule. I remember wearing my Solidarity badge with pride (despite not being particularly politically informed). So I was interested to pick up this short novel about growing up in rural Poland, in which the politics of the time both do and don’t impact on everyday life.
A semi-autobiographical account of village life related with touches of wry humour, each chapter addresses a fragment of Wiola’s life from her father’s return from political detention when she’s an infant to adolescent experimenting with sex, alcohol and sniffing glue. In between, she observes her father’s interest in taxidermy, her mother and friends meeting to tear up feathers for stuffing, and has her drawing of a potato beetle rewarded by a regional art committee as portraying “the crusade of the imperialist beetle” while an accidentally smudged painting of Moscow, which she’s never visited, leads to questioning about who has introduced her to such subversive ideas. She attends church, builds up her collection of matchbox labels and collects scrap metal at the behest of the Student Society for the Construction of Central Heating when the original boiler breaks down. Then there are stories from neighbours, strangers and relatives, such as the one about her mother’s school friend who couldn’t bear the strain of having to “finish dreaming” the dreams of another girl executed by the Germans.
Translated by Eliza Marciniak and published by Portobello, who provided my review copy, it’s an unusual novella that’s likely to divide readers, although I find myself sitting on the fence.