First, just over three pages of narrative ending with a closed door; we discover what’s on the other side some 170 pages later. Then, seven chapters varying in length from 5 to 66 pages, each comprising sections rarely longer than three or four pages – those sections do not necessarily record sequential events. This structure may seem fragmentary, and indeed it is. But the novel is unified by the voice of the narrator, Vinga, and our closeness to the movement of her thoughts and feelings.
Vinga is, I think, in her early teenage years. Most of the novel is set in a sweltering summer before she begins a new school – an anxious prospect for her. She spends much of that summer with her Grandpa on a Swedish island, a voyage by ferry from her home in the city.
She has the acute self-awareness and insights of many adolescents. She is an only child, who has grown up secure in the love of her parents. Until now, that is, for her Dad has found someone else. Someone younger who, Vinga has recently learned, is several months pregnant. Her mother is being outwardly rational, talking to her husband about the situation, not least for Vinga’s sake, she says. But beneath her mother’s bravery, Vinga reads her loneliness.
Grandpa and the island are Vinga’s escape. After Grandpa’s working life at sea, it is still the ocean which energises his mind and body. His loving concern for his grand-daughter is often expressed in ways beyond language. Sensing how she must be feeling about her parents and to fill her mind and days through the summer, he finds a sailing dinghy in need of work to make her seaworthy. He can guide Vinga in that – the sealing, scraping, sanding, painting. New ropes and fittings, mending the sail. Then Vinga will need to learn to handle the boat.
Vinga sets to work eagerly, but she and Grandpa also spend time in talk and silence, feeling the rhythms of the sea, the weather, the birds, the lives of the islanders and the routines of Grandpa’s days. Sometimes they just sit, maybe playing chess or resting under the lilac tree with a glass of Grandpa’s rhubarb lemonade. Then, abruptly for Vinga, those rhythms are disrupted – by Ruth, another girl over from the mainland, grand-daughter of the island’s store-keeper. Where Vinga finds stability in the island, Ruth is out of her element, hating the quiet, missing her ‘gang’ at home, longing for the glitz of the city. The two could not be more different, it seems – even in their appearance; Vinga with her curly red hair and freckles, her baggy, easy clothes and Ruth, dressed entirely in black and with her black hat shading her ‘pale and pointed face’.
They meet most days, talk more and more. Ruth, against her inclinations, even shares a little work on the boat. They survive an explosive episode of utter misunderstanding to find a deeper need for each other’s company. There’s a single, surprising, kiss.
The fragmentary organisation of the text allows Oskar Kroon to offer readers a sustained empathy with Vinga’s confused, contented, distressed, angry, fearful, exhilarated mind. The book won the August prize for Sweden’s best children’s book in 2019, then a further award in the Netherlands. It has appeared in 11 other languages. The sensitivity and precision of Vinga’s narrative suggest that A.A. Prime’s translation must be of high quality.
So much in so short a novel.