Wednesday 23 October 2019

Welcome to America: Knausgård's ex-wife steps from shadows with a startling and piercing work


Sharp shock: Linda Boström Knausgård
Sharp shock: Linda Boström Knausgård
Welcome to America by Linda Boström Knausgård

Tanya Sweeney

No one can ever say that Norwegian 'literary rock star' Karl Ove Knausgård does brevity. After six instalments of his autobiographical novel My Struggle, Knausgård has committed his marriages, adolescence, childhood, father's death and early manhood to 3,500 pages. Amid the sprawling opus, he has written of his marriage to Linda Boström Knausgård in eye-watering detail, as well as her own challenges with bipolar disorder.

She, too, has written of their life together previously, and here, she mines her own childhood experiences. Yet where Karl Ove favours the extravagantly expansive, his ex-wife is an absolute master of brevity, packing a wallop with 124 pages of staccato prose. As a standalone work, Welcome to America is startling and piercing; given the context around it, it also becomes a work in which she steps out from under her ex-husband's shadow.

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Ellen is 11 years old, living with a sullen, bullish older brother and her incessantly upbeat actress mother. Ellen's father has recently died, and Ellen believes she has caused his death given that, gripped by fear of his violence and unpredictability, she prayed for him to die.

He was a catastrophic presence in life, at one point turning the gas on in the family's apartment while they are out. In time, we find Ellen is too young to fully understand the mental illness that caused his death. It has been enough to prompt Ellen to stop speaking entirely; something that the wilful, watchful child keeps up for several months (this is something that Boström Knausgård attempted too as a youngster, although was only able to keep up her resolve for a couple of days at a time. Her own father died when she was an adult). It starts to become a problem: her school tell her that she can't move up to the next class if she won't speak or do her homework.

Ellen's brother isn't faring too well either, having taken to his bedroom and nailed the door shut, he has begun peeing into bottles to avoid leaving the room. He only emerges (and empties the bottles) when he tentatively brings home a new girlfriend. Ellen's mother, while clearly loving, is keeping up a strange charade of normalcy. Yet it is clear that as a unit, they are not rubbing along well together on this grief journey.

There is something naked and vulnerable in the telling of Ellen's story, yet Welcome to America feels stylised and sufficiently literary that it doesn't feel overly autobiographical. The book is written from the viewpoint of an 11-year-old, so florid poetry would certainly have felt disingenuous. Yet Welcome to America is the work of someone who has truly considered the power of language, so that as few words as possible do the same job of reams of mannered prose.

"It's a long time already since I stopped talking," Ellen says at the outset of her story. "They're used to it now. My mum, my brother. My dad's dead, so I don't know what he'd have to say about it." It's a simple, if absorbing start. From there on out, Ellen's self-imposed exile, and her interiority, are sadly compelling. Despite her mother's insistence that they are a 'family of light', their personal worlds suggest anything but.

At 124 pages, Welcome to America is a short, sharp shock of a book, written in sentences that prick and punch. It's stark, though too short a read to feel oppressively so. It's tempting to read the novel as a response, or even a riposte, to what we think we already know about Boström Knausgård. But even without the association of her very famous ex-husband, this book stands tall and assured, all on its own.

Welcome to America by Linda Boström Knausgård, World Editions, paperback, 124 pages, €12.44

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