October 2023

Noted

Ia Genberg’s ‘The Details’

By Helen Elliott
Cover of ‘The Details’
The four young characters of the Swedish author’s slender volume grippingly embody everyday life, its enduring relationships and its anxieties

The Details (Hachette) is only 155 pages long, so I am committing it to memory. The details in these pages are my life, probably your life – zephyrs glancing through our skin moment by moment, so nuanced that we don’t notice. Swedish writer Ia Genberg has an idea about what that weird concept “self” is: “traces of the people we rub up against”.

Genberg’s novel has swept through the world in much the same way as Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons in Chemistry. Entirely different books but equally serious. The authors share the remarkable and rare thing where the reader falls into their novel and nothing else exists until they tip out, mournful to arrive – again! – in the everyday. Genberg’s narrator is similar: “I preferred books with a pull so strong I couldn’t get out.”

Yet it is the everyday world that concerns Genberg, and she palpitates that gossamer weave thread by thread. She does this by refraction as much as reflection, selecting the four significant people in her life – perhaps not the only four, but those certainly significant for the way they brushed into her “self” and did their unique surgery. There are three women – Johanna, Niki, Birgitte – and one man – Alejandro. The novel opens with the narrator ill with a virus that has left her with a fever. All she wants is to lay her hands on a particular book that her lover, Johanna, gave to her 24 years before. Johanna had written an endearing inscription and, in the pitch and heat of the fever the narrator is currently experiencing, she reflects on their time together.

She is 27 and Johanna 24 when they meet at a university lecture. The narrator knows she wants to write but instead finds herself strolling around her own and distant neighbourhoods: “I’d rarely encountered a responsibility I didn’t reject”. She and Johanna fall into love as they fall into books, and they move in together, into the bliss of first forever love. But. There is something about Johanna, something the narrator sees but pretends she doesn’t. Johanna finishes all her courses, has an unerring eye for beauty and is carelessly generous. In Johanna’s world, life is “lived in one direction, and that direction was forward”. The narrator notes the difference between them when she observes in her lover “the deep-rooted sense of obedience in her, a kind of deference to the task at hand no matter how hopeless it might seem”.

Being young, in love, en thrall, allows the narrator to overlook the implications of their single difference. It doesn’t occur to her that a single difference contains a myriad of differences, each themselves containing a multitude.

Niki is her close friend before Johanna, the opposite in every way. If Johanna is innately direct, Niki is a natural liar, a charming enthusiast clad in adjectives: all Niki’s friends are “brilliant super women”, the “world’s loveliest people”, with “the kindness of bodhisattvas”, at least until they upset Niki and become little rats. The chaotic Niki tried to kill herself when she was a teenager and now cuts herself to manage anxiety: “a vent for the soul in the skin”. What writing! But Niki touches the narrator’s heart. “Niki was an adventure, an endless all-genre drama where nothing was static and nothing could be predicted.”

And Alejandro? “Our relationship was the length of a breath and yet he stayed with me, as if there was something in me that bent around him, a new paradigm for all my future verbs.”

Birgitte is a dive into the past. Elusive, hopeful Birgitte who, at the age of 23 had a full-blown psychotic break. It was the day her daughter, the narrator, was born. From then, until she dies, anxiety directed her life. The analysis of anxiety, everyday anxiety, is both incisive and poetic.

The Details is a book about nothing but that “withering little memory box in my head”. I get the sense that the translation (by Kira Josefsson) is superb, almost as superb as an entire novel about nothing but being human. That’s quite enough to make a goddess anxious. Here’s the last page, after a walk in the cemetery:

When I was younger, I often thought I should travel more and farther, spend more time in foreign countries, that I should be in a constant state of velocity … but with time I have come to understand that everything I was looking for was right here, inside of me, inside the things that surround me.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

Cover of ‘The Details’

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