Max and Katriina Paul have been married for over thirty years and have settled into some semblance of a comfortable routine. Professor of sociology and one-time media darling on the subject of sex, Max, spends his evenings trawling forums looking for his name; while his wife is entirely wrapped up in her work, filled with a fervent self-belief. Their daughters Helen and Eva couldn’t be more different; with Helen being quietly married with two children of her own, and Eva in-between careers, relationships and more besides.
The novel starts with a frozen pet, and then takes us back to the beginning to see how the family reached this breaking point. Strangely enough, a similar situation happened to me as a child involving a pet rabbit, a holiday, and an excruciating wait as it thawed out before we could bury it. I’d always thought I’d start a short film or story with this anecdote, but I guess that’s that nipped in the bud. CHEERS, PHILIP TEIR! (I’m just messing Philip.) From then on we see how each character’s insecurities come to the forefront as bad decisions are made, and they all start to pull apart. Max’s failure to commit to his writing leads him into temptation, Katriina’s job causes her to second-guess her life, Helen’s husband seems tired of her and is possibly dealing with his sexuality, and Eva’s life implodes hundreds of miles away in England.
Switching between the characters pulls us into their world – and it isn’t hard to sympathise with them all, even when they play off against each other. Stuck in their own ruts, whether it’s an ideological, sexual, creative or emotional furrow, they muddle along, living their own separate lives, only coming together for family occasions for an argument or a sulk. They aren’t wholly unlikable or so dysfunctional you wonder how they manage to be in the same room as each other – this isn’t a comedy of embarrassment, but a simmering look at tension underneath the surface within a seemingly average family unit. There are certainly shades of Franzen and Eugenides painted on this Scandinavian canvas, but it’s less bombastic, and doesn’t attempt to keep as many plates up in the air.
It’s not all grim family drama – it’s often infused with a dark humour that begins with the dead hamster and moves through other unlikely scenarios such as Max awkwardly performing tantric yoga, or the cultural minefield that is a tutorial with a pretentious art tutor and his conceptual-obsessed students.. Through Eva, the book manages to take a wry look at the art world and the Occupy movement as she studies in London and deals with the various chaotic lives she comes into contact with. Although seemingly the most fragile and adrift character, it’s a pleasure seeing her build herself up over the course of the book and ending up as one of the most fulfilled. These sections were the ones that resonated the most with me – but different people will likely align themselves with a different member of the family. This is a very good debut that manages to present a sardonic look at modern day Scandinavia with beautifully- drawn characters and an understated channel of humour that runs beneath the surface.