by Tomas Bannerhed,
translated from the Swedish
by Sarah Death
Paperback, 416 pagesPublished January 16th, 2014
by Clerkenwell Press
First published March 15th, 2011***
I’m not going to beat around the push and leave you hanging: The Ravens is without hesitation my favorite book among the books listed for the IFFP this year. I believe it is also my favorite read so far this year, out of 40 books to date. Alas, the book didn’t make it on the official shortlist, but at least it is on our Shadow Panel Shortlist.
The book, set in rural Sweden in the 1970s, tackles the difficult topic of mental illness.
Toiling in the fields is hard for Agne, his wife and his two young boys. He would like his oldest, Klas, 12, to help. But Klas is not ready to embrace his dad’s life of hardship, especially as he notices more and more than his dad behaves weirdly. Agne obsesses on the weather, he writes down the weather reports everyday, too religiously, and is always afraid that things are going to go from bad to worse for their land.
Then his obsession shifts to a pile of metallic scrap that he keeps accumulating in their yard, working at it day and also at nights.
Klas has his own focus, the one that helps him keep sane: nature and observing everything in it, especially birds. He is really an excellent birder. Watching a leaf and nature in its beauty, helps him imagine a better world.
There is nothing here to be afraid of. No eyes boring at you, trying to get in. Just you and what is here, the forest murmuring its murmur, as it always has.
Even though Klas’s mother has some tenderness towards him, this is not enough, especially as she struggles herself to keep sane with the condition of her husband, who keeps deteriorating and eventually needs special treatment at the hospital.
Birds can also be a sign of threat, as Agne keeps “hearing the ravens” in his head, threatening them.
This is definitely not the best environment for a 12 year old. Besides, he bears the shame of having a crazy father in front of kids his own age, with whom he has a hard time finding a commonality in the first place.
The arrival, in a nearby property, of Veronika, a young girl his age, will make a tiny difference, and the night they spend listening to birds is a highlight of the book, with a beautiful passage on the bittern.
But all this is not enough to soothe Klas’s fear. They materialize in the shape of an eye hovering from the ceiling over him by night, by nightmares, and hallucinations. When he finds some information at the library about wetting oneself at night, and discovers that it could require psychiatric treatment, he wonders if he is just going to follow his dad’s way…
I loved every line of this book, the way the main topic was treated along with nature and birding. As an avid birder myself, I could very easily put myself in Klas’s shoes. All the passages dealing with birds, and they are numerous, were so good.
The book is written in a very simple and direct style. It makes it powerful and totality gut grabbing. Nature is presented both as a hardship and as as object of beauty in which Klas would like to merge to find refuge. This was really poetry in motion, with strongly defined characters.
It reminded be a bit of The Tree of Man, by Patrick White, about another family struggling in a rural environment in Australia.
VERDICT: A fabulous evocation of mental illness and loneliness, with nature and birding as possible refuges and ways of maintaining sanity. Gut-wrenching writing that will remain in you for a long time. Best literary fiction of the year.
Here is my list of 2015 IFFP titles in order of likes:
- The Ravens, by Tomas Bannerhed
- The End of Days, by Jenny Erpenbeck
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
- The Dead Lake, by Hamid Ismailov
- Look Who’s Back, by Timur Vermes
- F, by Daniel Kehlman
- Bloodlines, by Marcello Fois
- By Night the Mountain Burns, by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel
- The Last Lover, by Can Xue
- The Giraffe’s Neck, by Judith Schalansky
- While the Gods Were Sleeping, by Erwin Mortier
To know more about the IFFP and the IFFP Shadow Panel, please see the other posts in this category