Fylgia – Birgitta Hjalmarson

Summary:

This novel is set in rural Sweden, in a town called Hult, and a timeline that spans both World Wars up to the 1970’s.

We follow the story of Anna, daughter of the local village leader Grim Larsson (aka Rammen), as she comes of age against a backdrop of a rigid class system, political upheaval, recession and very hard times. The story shows how the choices we make can define and confine us, but also how society has its own pressures. As a side note, in Norse mythology, a fylgia is similar to a guardian angel.

Main Characters:

Anna Larsson: The protagonist, we see this world through her eyes and her experiences.

Fredrik Otter: Anna’s homme fatale, he is full of modern ideas on farming, and causes a stir in this conservative village.

Rammen: (aka Grim Larsson) Anna’s father, charismatic, a leader, yet is rigid and inflexible when things happen that go against his moral and religious beliefs.

Bjorn: Anna’s brother, second-in-line to inherit the farm, a bit of a player in his youth.

Agnes: Fredrik’s live-in housekeeper, and sometime lover.

Minor Characters:

Kristina: The local prostitute, with six kids by different fathers, she ran a tavern and generally struggles to make ends meet.

Ulrika: Wife of Rammen, suffering from neurasthenia, declining into possible dementia.

Karin: Young niece of Anna, struggling to make her marriage work, and with her feelings on being trapped.

Wilhelm: Anna’s oldest brother, who is banished and disinherited.

Wikander: The local preacher, very Lutheran in outlook, though partial to a card game.

Plot:

Fylgia’s story is told in the first-person by Anna, now in her eighties, looking back over her life. Her history is revealed by switching the narrative to the particular time, like sequences of flashbacks, where Anna relives particular events and scenarios, and she sees parallels in the life of Karin (and Olaf her husband). She has some anger towards Fredrik, she grieves the loss of her child, and feels sorrow at some decision that were taken, and those that were not.

She sets a scene of a conservative village society at the turn of the 20th century, where field work is mostly done manually, there is an accepted class system in operation (see where the sexton tried to refuse entry to a church pew to the servant, or where Anna could not talk to her former schoolmate, who was now a mill-worker), and there was still a certain belief in magic, “wise women” and trolls.

Everyone watches everyone else, to ensure things are done appropriately, and that women are modest. Weekly, the preacher thunders from his pulpit his stories of having to suffer in this world, and other joyless messages.

Rammen is a successful farmer, and others look to him for advice. He’s the village representative for the Provincial Council. Anna’s family is thus well-known and there are high expectations of the children in terms of marriageability and social decorum.

As Anna gets older, she begins to chafe against this, and begins to question things. Her turbulence is matched by turmoil in the country. Sweden, though neutral in the Great War, has its shipping fleet damaged, and rationing sets in. This causes great social unrest, as does the fact of the king’s wife being German, and the socialists are on the march.

Anna sees Fredrik for the first time, and despite herself is drawn to him, both for his newness, his confidence in bringing new ideas, and basic sex appeal. She is 22, and inexperienced, whereas Fredrik is somewhat older, worldly and confident.

Fredrik is completely unsuitable and undesirable to her family, which serves only to increase the attraction. Anna admits early on she knew he wasn’t right, but can’t help herself. As their relationship develops, a lot of other people are affected, and lives changed. She gets a job in the local bank, becoming a person of importance, and illegally makes contraception available to the local women.

There is a lot of comings and goings between the various characters (a much larger cast than outlined above), and there is palpable tension between Agnes and Anna over the affections of Fredrik. His true love is the land, and he wants his own farm but he is also caught between his duty and his desire for the two women.

There are other stories going on as well, for example we gain insights into Rammen and Ulrika’s marriage, Bjorn is more than just the village playboy, and even in the big cities you cannot be anonymous.

The various children grow up, and move away, or inherit. Life goes on, even during and after the Spanish flu, the Great Recession, and the Second World War. Modernisation comes, but some still resist. The land and the forest are constant backdrops, and people still measure their worth by this. Some seek to monetise the forests, for example, others believe they should be left alone. Unmarried Anna falls pregnant, and this is the event which is a real dividing line in her life, as she experiences first-hand the various taboos and rituals of the village and society, their approval and disapproval, and hard choices to be made.

Fylgia also brilliantly captures the rural society at a particular point of change. There are still those who keep to the old ways (Gustava, a servant, keeps a careful eye on Anna’s caul to ensure trolls and others don’t get it), there is a magic in the forest that may not be trifled with, and for me Anna’s fylgia is the roe buck, who appears when she needs it.

We also get a glimpse of a city world where courtships were started through formal introductions, a world of balls and soirees, and “matches” were made.

We also see changes in society at this time, how the far-away war has affected everyone, and the sheer poverty of some of the people. We see a growing lack of respect for authority figures, and a new confidence in the young people to throw off restraints.

What I Liked:

  • The historical accuracy is excellent, and the research the author put in really paid off.
  • Small-town life is perfectly described, where everyone knows each other’s business, and tongues always ready to wag
  • The characters are real – we see their flaws, their passions, their dreams and disappointments in clear detail
  • The story flowed very smoothly

What I Didn’t Like:

  • There was very little in the story I didn’t like, and maybe that’s because it has its roots in real-life.
  • There was just a sense of greyness, of not much hope. Notions of love are treated as fantasy.
  • I would have liked more of a connection between Anna and the fylgia.

Overall:

This is a historical fiction memoir with a bite, as the story draws you in, and draws you on. You want to find out how Anna and Fredrik turn out, you need to find out why does Anna blame Fredrik for the child’s death, and how did the complicated relations in a small village unwind themselves, or did they?

The author cleverly draws the power of society to make people conform, the conflict between tradition and change, and the hidden lives lived out in full view.

Anna was of a generation and time that got on with things, made do, and realised that life is hard, but it’s also what you make it. Choices made cannot be unmade, and like the tramp you need to follow your path one step at a time.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It tells a great story, realistic, and touches on important themes.

Acknowledgements:

My thanks to the author who sent me a copy of the book, in return for an honest and objective review.

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