The world of literature is littered with “coming of age” stories. And to be perfectly honest they’re not really something that floats my boat, awkward kid coming to terms with independence, discovering the attractions of the opposite (or same) sex, feeling isolated from their parents, in my mind they’re a dime a dozen. We’ve even had the wonderful Peirene Press dedicate a whole year to putting out a “coming of age” series and “The Dead Lake” from that series also made this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist.
Onto “The Ravens”, a Swedish coming-of-age story about Klas, “a work-shy boy, who’s hardly the gilt on the gingerbread.” Klas is more intrigued and passionate about the birds on the family farm and the exotic locations they migrate to, than becoming the next in line to work the soil. He is twelve years of age and it’s high time he started working with his father on the land.
He gave a self-satisfied little smile and looked out of the window, the way he generally did when he with thinking about something special, something only he knew about, something that was a long time ago and might never come back. A smile in his beard, a little glint in his eyes. Then he slowly turned his head my way and fixed me with a look, and there was no way of telling if it was still a game or something more serious. He stared as if he wanted to get right into me, sat there for ages, glassy-eyed and unblinking.
Finally he parted those dry, shrunken lips.
‘When I was a lad we had a songthrush behind the cowshed,’ he said, raising his voice as if delivering a lesson. ‘He was there for several years in that same spruce – they’ve chopped it down now, by the way – and whenever I came out with the barrow of manure of an evening he’d sing for a bit. Almost made you want to sit down and just listen, it was that sweet.’
Our narrator is Klas and his father is slowly losing his mental grip (as his father before him did too), however early on in our novel, as you can see above, he does attempt to have a connection with his family, but over time we start to see the failing mind. Klas’ mother, having to bear the brunt of the slow unravelling, is herself feeling the strain, and our young boy starts to spend more and more time in the great outdoors, revelling in nature. He celebrates the miniscule, the seconds that make up hours, the number of worms a raven eats in a lifetime, the constant movement of molecules, the fact that even a rock isn’t staying still.
Of course this wouldn’t be a coming-of-age story if our narrator didn’t meet a young girl, and of course he does, Veronika, a similarly young girl from the city. Klas is infatuated.
She can go off to Gotland and the Riviera and do whatever she likes. This is something we share.
Amazing. From one day to the next. And yet it had only just started, you could sense that a mile off.
Exultation inside, trying to get out.
And I thought it was lovely at the lake –
Did you hear that was what she said before we parted?
Like a promise.
As the novel progresses Klas’ father begins his descent into madness, he starts to turn the scrap metal heap into small pieces with an angle-grinder all through the night, he talks of his work never being done and eventually moves himself into the cellar.
Besides the descent of Klas’ father he continues to marvel at the numerous birds of the region, he celebrates his surroundings and Mother Nature, he enjoys being part of a greater whole, the escape from the pressures of being the eldest male child and the burden of responsibility coming too soon:
I ran across to the alders on the far side of the jetty and opted for the one closest to the shore, pulled myself up to the lower branches and aimed for a fork near the top, where I’d be able to sit. And sure enough: the glitter grew brighter and brighter and the light more and more intense, the higher you got. The radiant channel widened into a glinting shower of light, the whole lake filled with a million little silver lamps winking on and off at their own rates with dazzling clarity, so the water looked almost carbonated, sparkling with bubbles. The light squeezed my eyes harder and harder, forcing my eyelids shut.
And the eagles? Who can look straight into the sun without being blinded, keep looking without a blink. Who will kill their own young if they don’t make the grade.
The eagle is an eagle and you are you, the voice said soothingly. All is as it should be.
There’s Mum, sunbathing on the chequered rug, lying stretched out on her back with her head on one side, as if she’d dozed off. There’s Goran at the water’s edge, skimming stones but not getting the right flick of the wrist.
Sitting here in the black alder, looking out over it all.
Later in the novel Klas’ father is taken to hospital, receives shock treatment, is medicated and sent back home, he relapses and the whole process is repeated. The story begins to revolve around the descent into madness, and the return of the father who never offers anything in the way of an apology for his behaviour, they simply cower and await the consequences, “everything is returning to normal”, that means the nightmare is going to begin again.
Given the history of insanity in the family Klas begins to question his own sanity, and the novel’s tone becomes darker, the sentences shorter and more cryptic, are we witnesses to a young boy’s descent into madness?
An interesting novel with hints of Faulkner, a few times I was reminded of Nick Cave’s “And The Ass Saw The Angel” (I don’t know why), and a very assured first novel. I think it is possibly my aversion to these coming of age stories that didn’t allow me to enjoy it as much as other readers would. So unlike some on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shadow Jury I was not too disappointed when it didn’t make the official shortlist. If these “coming of age” stories are your thing I suggest you get a copy of “The Ravens” as it sits at the higher end of the spectrum for these type of tales.