Oscar Peterson’s finest hour.
This novel is a family epic over three generations, set in Sweden. Hanna, of the title, grows up at the end of the 19th century in a rural and poor part of Sweden near the border with Norway. She is the mother of Johanna, who is in turn the mother of Anna. (I wonder if there is a Swedish word for “female descendent” that they had to translate as “daughter”. Hanna has just one daughter, but then, people say things like “sons of Adam” to mean all men, so I’m clearly just being picky.)
The first section of the book, describing Hanna’s early life, is probably the best. Hanna’s world is the most foreign, and this accounts for much of the interest. However it’s definitely also the case that Hanna is the best characterised of all the characters in the book. Hanna is a strong woman, and she is portrayed sympathetically, despite being unfashionably illiberal and conservative in her attitudes. The author doesn’t win our sympathies by making her out to be anachronistically modern. Instead, Hanna is just well-drawn and this is a sign of good writing.
In this stage of the book, it’s also very interesting to get a glimpse at the historical events that led to the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden. The way this is portrayed in the book, it sounds as if the two countries were very close to going to war over the issue.
Johanna’s story is less interesting. I did find the image of Sweden “cowering behind its neutrality” during World War II an arresting one, but couldn’t help but feel that the Jewish immigrants were thrown in just for the sake of it. For a while, the description of growing up and living life in a 1920s urban environment (Göteborg) is quite engrossing, but it peters out. Anna’s story is less interesting still. Her voice is perhaps too accurately modern; full of psycho-babble about self-realisation etc.
The novel also suffers from having only two types of male. We are subjected to either the womanising charmer, or to the basically decent guy, slightly marred by a tendency to “rage” or spots of domestic violence. All in all, despite a promising start, the novel turns into a reasonably well-written soap opera. It comes complete with manipulative moments where you generally succeed in having a “bit of a cathart”, though you end up slightly resenting the author for throwing them in.
Terrence Deacon, The symbolic species.