In 1916 Sweden, a man who loves books and his own company doesn’t fit in with the extroverted, hard drinking people around him. At a loss for what to do with his life, he heads to work in a mine in an isolated arctic zone, and at first sinks into bleak aloneness before being befriended by a Scottish explorer, who shares books and conversation. Sven finds someone he has common ground with at last, at the end of the world, but when a mining accident disfigures his face, he decides that he will never return to polite society, and heads further on his adventures into isolation. Along the way he finds himself, his own kind of belonging and even friendship and family.
The book is based on a real person, a man with one eye who was nicknamed Stockholm Sven and who lived alone on isolated Svalbard before the second world war. I think it’s mostly fictional, but it really captures a few things really well. Firstly, the way that being alone and living in the artic is really hard on the body and the psyche. The world that Sven lives in is dangerous because of the cold, the things that can go wrong, the animal life that may want to eat you, and also the kind of work that he does and the utter isolation. Secondly, it’s really well realised historical fiction. I have a real pet hate for fiction that is full of anachronisms or tropes, it makes me crazy. This book seems to really get the time and place as well as the people. It’s really remarkably confident and assured first novel. Finally, I really like the way that the book depicts the way that intelligence and a curious mind can set you apart as much as immaturity and social awkwardness. Sven gets along really well with people who read and who have that intellectual curiosity, but in his life in Stockholm, he’s not able to meet them because of the class divide. He needs to work for his bread in a factory or mine, and there’s no money for higher education, where he might meet like minded people.
The book is quite beautiful at times, taking us out of the warm, social whirl and into the dark, snowy nights at the end of the world. It’s an incredibly hard life, but that serves to highlight the importance of the bonds that Sven makes. He actually makes quite a few friends over the course of his life, I won’t spoil it, but I really like his relationship with a dog. It’s … just right. The book is about someone who lives in a time and place I’ve never been and his life is so much easier than mine, and yet, the voice of the story feels relatable and authentic. While his circumstances are extreme, it feels familiar, in the sense that we’ve all felt alone and wondered how we’ll survive, how to get through things and feeling completely alone.
It’s a really nice read. It’s a little more measured and slow for about the first half of the book, so stick with it. But I liked it’s misanthropic main character and how he finds himself, learns, grows, makes friends over time, and the side characters who are sometimes dark and sometimes tragic. And the arctic setting makes for a great winter read.
Read It If: this would make a great gift for any introvert in your life, or yourself if you’re looking for a winter read. It’s a cold story about survival, not fitting in and finding belonging.
Thank you to PGC Books for the copy of this book for review.