Review: 'Welcome to America' a Swedish novella of silence and absence

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Welcome to America

"Welcome to America" by Linda Bostrom Knausgaard 

WELCOME TO AMERICA. By Linda Bostrom Knausgaard. Translated by Martin Aitken. World Editions. 124 pages. $15.99.

“It’s a long time already since I stopped talking.” So opens Linda Bostrom Knausgaard’s second novel. The voice, which is everything, belongs to Ellen, an 11-year-old girl who clammed up after her father’s death. With each sentence of her novella, Knausgaard gives a spare and poetic accounting of her narrator’s silent days.

The story seems earmarked for melancholy, but Knausgaard opens it up to something else instead. The surviving members of the “Welcome to America” family don’t fall apart. They do the harder thing and pull themselves together.

Although she doesn’t want to be placed in the auto-fiction camp (where she already lives in the “My Struggle” novels of her former husband Karl Ove Knausgaard), Linda Bostrom Knausgaard draws on her own life for “Welcome to America.” Like Ellen’s mother, her own mother, Ingrid Bostrom, was a renowned Swedish actress, and like Ellen’s father, hers suffered from bipolar disorder. Knausgaard’s father didn’t die the gruesome death of Ellen’s father, but she did wish him dead. She also sampled muteness but could only last a couple of days.

Early in “Welcome to America,” happy memories are part of the mix. Ellen describes an idyllic fishing scene at the family’s country place. But the scene quickly darkens and other memories shove their way to the fore. When she remembers the moment later, her mother is, as ever, perfect in all details, “as if acting for an invisible camera.” In the reconstructed memory, her brother lands another fish, this one a dead turbot, already picked apart by birds.

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The dream scene falls apart. In time, the cabin burns, the father’s mania takes over, and the mother evicts him from the household. He doesn’t know how to live without them. Nightly, Ellen prays, “Dear God ... Please make my father die.” She will describe his death as a “triumph for me and God. It was our first collaboration.”

Still, her father does not leave quietly. He’s there in her memory: sneaking her out of school for a day at an amusement park, or forcing her to listen as he sings the same song over and over. His ghost also shows up in her room at night, cautioning her, “Never love anyone too much.” Ellen isn’t ready yet to respond vocally, but she writes him a note: “You’re dead. You can’t come here.”

At the heart of Knausgaard’s novel is absence: the dead father, the preoccupied but perfect mother, the brother who nails his door shut and, most obviously, the narrator’s withheld speech. Each character inhabits a lonely darkness, even as the mother keeps insisting, “We are a family of light.”

And then suddenly it’s true. They have pulled themselves out of the darkness. Ellen tells her fractured story with off-hand comments, each of them flung out like a pebble, seemingly nothing much. Together, they mark something quite lovely, the path that leads her back to life.

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.

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