Review: Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck

Jagannath is a collection of 13 short stories of different lengths, all containing at least a hint of the imaginary, the unreal, and the weird, as allegories of alienation, otherness, and the taboo, but also as archetypal symbols in their own right.

The collection opens with Beatrice, a story about the many forms love can take, but how similar the pain is when that love goes unrequited. It’s also a story about birth and the love between parents and children.

In Tidbeck’s stories the process of birth and the love between parents and children is often difficult and painful, but always strong and touching, as in the sad Some Letters for Ove Lindström, the beautiful Cloudberry Jam, the darkly opulent Aunts, and the fantastic title story, Jagannath, about a living mothership/hive and its relationship to the offspring that is living inside their mother.

Another theme is the mysterious, the hidden, and the uncanny, arriving in the form of strange creatures or events, as in the stories of Miss Nyberg and I, Herr Cederberg, Who Is Arvid Pekon, and in particular, Pyret. The latter being an imaginary research article and report about a mysterious shapeshifting creature which seems to evolve into something increasingly human over time as it becomes more and more familiar with people and our way of life.

Other stories draw from themes encountered elsewhere in modern speculative literature, such as Rebecka, which is about life, ethics and religion in a world after the Second Coming, and Augusta Prima, which is set in a timeless and dream-like baroque world on the edge of ours.

Most of the stories in Jagannath are unmistakably Swedish and Scandinavian, the landscapes, the settings, the celebrations and holidays, the dishes that are served, the characters’ daily habits, and the way they communicate with and relate to one another. Tidbeck also uses this to make sly observations about life in Scandinavia, and by extension, life in the Western world (“The arrival of rationalism changed the face of Scandinavian faith and superstition in a way Christianity had not.” “Despite the well-known fact that it’s the worst time possible, everyone who needs to speak to a governmental agency calls on Monday morning.”), as well as questioning our identities and ways of interaction.

It is therefore only natural that Tidbeck’s imaginary creatures seem to have been grown from the Swedish landscape and an ancient pedigree of Swedish mythology, folk tales and literature, reminding me of both the Scandinavian tales of the nisse, “the subterranean people”, and the imaginary creatures of Swedish-Finnish writer Tove Jansson.

I enjoyed this collection a lot, in particular because of its the Swedish and Scandinavian flavor. It’s great to see this part of the world communicated in English and with such imaginative fictions and creatures. This is particularly true for the longest and perhaps the most personal of all the stories, Reindeer Mountain, and the easily recognizable landscape in Brita’s Holiday Village.

My three favorite stories are nevertheless not set in any place in our world, but in worlds adjacent to ours; the funny and melancholic Augusta Prima, the fantastically baroque Aunts and the organically futuristic Jagannath (not the same as, but perhaps inspired by, the Hindu/Buddhist Jagannath deity).

(Review also posted on Goodreads and Amazon.)

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