Saturday 23 March 2019

Review by STELLA


Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Tempest is a dark and atmospheric novel. On a small Norwegian Island we meet Andreas, who is returning to the place of his childhood, unwillingly drawn by his foster father’s death and his search for answers: answers about who his parents were, about his sister’s decline into rebellion and later oblivion. Andreas, in confronting his past, is digging up the bones of the island - its landscape and its people. Its disturbing history of secrets has been papered over with mythology, making the task of untangling the relationships within the small community difficult, and the only person who might shed light on Andreas’s queries is the least trustworthy, but, unlike many of the other protagonists in his life story, Carsten is still alive - bitterly so. Drawing on his own childhood remembrances (some of which are, not surprisingly, inaccurate and the view of a child), snippets of written material (letters, newspaper clippings and diary entries), and enduring confronting conversations with Carsten, he is able to piece together a truth of sorts. Johannes, the foster father to Andreas and his sister Minna, was a parent who cared for both children but was incapable of moving beyond his guilt, sinking his life into a bottle. While Minna departed from their lives, Andreas would periodically visit the island, attempting to make Johannes's life more palatable, to little effect. In his final return, Andreas’s desire for the truth about his parents and what happened to them on the island during the war years, and the repercussions this had on future generations, burns at him. Throughout the book there are real and metaphoric fires that engulf the island, create distractions, and possibly free those who wish to depart. The island had been in the Kaufmann family for generations. During the war years, the younger Kaufmann, with the farm manager Carsten at his side, took on the rule of the island. An ‘intellectual’ with a keen interest in botany and biological science, he was intrigued with creating a communal society where workers would contribute to the island in return for small land plots - yet this concept in practice made the people virtual servants to the master and his whims. During the war years, Kaufmann was able to gain an audience in Berlin, making the island a complicit player in the Nazi regime. As Andreas digs down into the depths of the past, the revelations are disturbing, yet as the truth is revealed the behaviour of those in his childhood begins to make sense. Minna and Andreas’s histories have been overwritten by lies, mythologies and multiple stories - “your parents had to leave suddenly”, “they promised to return”, “they died in a fiery plane crash”. The island’s story has been buried, but the impact of collaborating with the Nazi regime is written on the faces and bodies of the inhabitants and pushes up through the landscape. Sem-Sandberg’s writing (and the brilliant translation) is compelling - his prose is alive on the page, rich and wild. He breaks all the rules, swiftly moving from one voice to the next with little breath, between past and present without hesitation, his empathy and anger rising off the page. Add to this his drawing on Shakespeare’s The Tempest in a covert rather than overt manner: the play vibrates under the surface of the novel, contributing layers of meaning and complexities that enhance this very astute and confronting piece of writing. 

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