Some Kind of Company by Nan Östman
Translated by Julia Rivers
We have to thank Aspal Press for finding this hidden gem of Swedish literature and making it available in English translation for the first time. Östman, who died in 2015, is a much loved Swedish children’s author, often writing about girls and horses, and winning the Astrid Lindgren Prize in 1987. Her adult writing came at the beginning and end of her career, she penned a couple of detective stories jointly with her husband in the mid 1950s. Then Some Kind of Company, published in Swedish in 1999 was her penultimate novel, written while she was in her seventies.
Indeed, the main protagonist of this novel is a woman in her early seventies who, although married, is lonely. She puts a personal ad in the paper:
72-year-old professional woman, a bit worse for wear, but healthy hard-working, well-read, married, would like to exchange thoughts with single educated gentleman of mature years.
Reply to SvD 997 25 100
Anna is a translator, still working – it keeps her sane and their lives afloat. She lives in the country with her husband Håkan, a retired lawyer, their two children don’t visit as often as she’d like.
Anna weeds out the replies she gets to her ad, picking one from a man who calls himself Bo Svenson. The novel begins with a section of her initial letters to him, presenting just her side of the conversation. Soon she is emboldened to start telling him difficult things about her and Håkan:
…there is a small peculiarity about our marriage… Actually I hadn’t planned on revealing that to you but obviously it’s significant so I’d better.
You see, Håkan does not speak to me. And he only speaks a very little with everyone else. He gradually stopped talking. There is nothing wrong with him that prevents him from speaking. He can when he wants to and when it’s essential. But I doubt whether the children really know how quiet it is here on weekdays. Although perhaps it is not so unusual that old people stop talking to one another. And not listening to each other is normal if anything. Probably.
The narrative turns from letters to the normal third person, and Bo takes up the story. At this stage we only know he was an archivist and widower, with three daughters and Bo and Anna had both grown up in the same area of Stockholm. By this stage in their letters, they’d suggested meeting up for a coffee, and he’d suggested the big department store in the city. Having looked at his album of photos of his family, including his late wife Marianne, he’s not sure he’s ready and when he gets to the coffee shop in the store, he bails. Anna had spotted him, and tells him so in her next letters.
So begins this two steps forward, one step back friendship. And as they communicate and confide in each other more, we realise that the outward view they present to the world is far from rosy. Håkan has long been difficult to live with and you sense that Anna stays for convenience now, you wonder whether her need to talk and oft spikiness is a driver for his silence, but that can’t be the only thing. Bo, on the other hand, lost his wife early, and ever since has been looking after his aged and Bohemian aunt Ellen who will provide one of the links that will bring them closer together. In other words, they both have baggage to come to terms with. The reader is behind Anna and Bo from the start.
Of course, this novel was written before the days of social media, and the narrative is all the more touching for it. This story of two lonely older people reaching out for friendship makes for a gentle and nuanced read, moving in places. It’s not lacking in drama – things do happen in the second half – once we’ve got to know Anna and Bo a bit better, and it wouldn’t really be giving things away if I said the ending was satisfyingly hopeful. It reminded me a little of another seventy-year-old author’s novel of letters – Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson (reviewed here) which also has a Scandi connection via the Jutland ‘Tolland Man’. Both of these novels come in at around 220 pages, neither wasting words; I felt that the letters allow the reader to read between the lines more.
Some Kind of Company is a superb lead title for Aspal’s ‘Prime’ imprint, and I look forward to reading more from this new indie press.
Don’t just take my word for it, read Stu’s review here.
Source: Review copy – thank you. Aspal Prime paperback (2021) , 222 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)