- The American Girl
- Other Press, 528 pp.
Fractured Fairy Tales
In Monika Fagerholm’s The American Girl there is a house. A house in the darker part of the District,
… an alpine villa on the low-lying damp ground by a turbid marsh. The nameless marsh.
The entire house was a staircase. A hundred steps leading up to the main entrance.
A staircase leading to nothing.
And deep within this house, deep down, deep down in the basement where the giant picture windows look out on the turbid marsh (when the view is not being choked by vegetation), deep down in the empty swimming pool, there are two girls playing.
Two girls named Sandra Wärn and Doris Flinkenberg.
Two girls playing with fire.
I’m sorry. Brief commercial break while I shake Fagerholm’s style out of my fingertips.
Okay, back to your regularly scheduled program…
Born in 1961, Fagerholm belongs to a minority of Swedish-speakers in Finland. This novel, Den amerikanska flickan, her third, won a number of prestigious prizes and became a best-seller when it appeared in 2004.
And it’s a challenge. Along with Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison, she belongs to a group of writers who have spent the last few decades chopping up dense, emotionally-rich stories and slamming down the lid of the pressure cooker.
She mixes chronologies, shudders between past and present tenses and frequently incorporates italics:
Regardless, the moment was quickly over because later Lorelei Lindberg broke out into a rippling laughter that welled out into the quiet world that surrounded her. And then, in that moment, Sandra was one hundred percent convinced that her mother was playing a role for all she was worth. That she was on the glitter scene again. But now the performance did nothing.
Wikipedia, purveyor of all useless knowledge, calls this style “high literary,” which is another way of saying it can bug the hell out of a reader.
It bugged the hell out of me. Granted, a grossly unfair comment, since I haven’t read the book in its original language. Nor can I find fault with its general thrust – the havoc caused when an American arrives in an insular Finnish community during the late 60s.
Almost immediately we learn that the girl, Eddie de Wire, has drowned in the marsh. Her death is unexplained, a mystery that has a bad knock-on effect on many in the District – three siblings, Rita, Solveig and Bengt; their aunt, the “cousin’s mama” and her son Björn; and the quirky baroness who lives in the Glass House.
But most importantly, Doris and Sandra.
Skillfully drawn by Fagerholm, these two waifs make up a classic odd couple: Sandra, the harelipped only child of a jetsetting couple named the Islander and Lorelei Lindberg, and Doris, the mistreated marsh child rescued by the cousin’s mama:
Doris Flinkenberg with her very own way of expressing herself. You did not always know if she was serious or if she was playing a game. And if it was a game, in that case, what kind?
“One man’s death is another man’s breath,” Doris Flinkenberg sighed in the cousin’s kitchen, so delighted over finally having her own home, a real one.
Sandra is the one living in the house in the darker part of the District, where she and Doris play their fantastic games. In the empty pool, they surround themselves with silken fabrics (leftover from a failed business attempt by Lorelei), read lurid true crime stories and speculate on the unpleasant happenings around them.
It’s a radioactive fairy tale, with adults known only by nicknames (the Black Sheep, the baroness) and facts twisted into fantasies. Ever seen Heavenly Creatures? There’s a bit of that in here – the overheated imaginings of two girls on the edge of puberty.
Even the clues to the mysteries that Fagerholm drops along the way – elaborately drawn childhood maps, a half finished puzzle of an “Alpine Villa in Snow”– take on the shape of breadcrumbs leading to the alpine gingerbread house in the woods.
But as the girls grow, the District’s many mysteries begin to clear, paralleling the girls’ maturity. There is one last tragedy before Sandra’s rational self takes over, and this marks the beginning of the novel’s end. It’s a cold dawn that greets the characters as they emerge from their midsummer madness.
A strange, tilting madness that seemingly only Northern European authors can produce. I’m thinking of Peter Høeg’s similarly titled The Quiet Girl and Roald Dahl’s boy-eating witches and the recent glut of Scandinavian crime fiction. I have a friend who lived for some time in Norway, and his description of the long winter nights has made me extremely cautious about visiting alone.
Of course, Fagerholm is Finnish, not Scandinavian. Which brings me conveniently back to my caution about this being a translation and my quibbles about her style. Here, for one last example, is her picture of the aftermath of a fire:
It had burned down on one side, the ground smarting with pain and the emptiness ran like a wide furrow farther into the woods than what could be seen with the naked eye from where she was standing.
You had me at “smarting with pain” and lost me with “than what could…” Maybe it’s just a consequence of being immersed, again, in murky waters (see Oates’s Little Bird of Heaven), but this kind of writing is starting to give me a rash. When reading “high literary” feels akin to contracting an infection, it’s time to break out the antibiotics.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.