‘I should not have gone back to the island but I did it all the same.’ So begins the Swedish author Steve Sem-Sandberg’s brief, dark and wonderfully atmospheric 12th novel, The Tempest. Islands play a special role in our literary imagination. They are crucibles, havens, prisons and escapes, places of magic and mysterious transformation, worlds that can be shaped and owned. There is a rich history of island-writing, from D.H. Lawrence to J.M. Barrie, Compton Mackenzie to Aldous Huxley, William Golding to John Fowles. Behind them all sits Shakespeare’s late, troublesome, self-reflexive play of creativity and destruction, forgiveness and retribution.
Sem-Sandberg’s island is one of a small archipelago sitting in a fjord on the Norwegian coast. Andreas Lehman, the tale’s principal narrator, grew up there, and now, years later, returns to clear out the house in which he and his sister Minna were raised by their alcoholic foster father, Johannes. From the off, we are alerted to the strange otherness of island life. As Andreas crosses the bridge, he notes:
I have a curiously familiar sensation of being transported centuries into the past. It is as if, all around me, the landscape is taking on greater depth and breadth and colour, yes, as if even the air is becoming denser.
We learn that Andreas and Minna were orphaned in mysterious circumstances in the years after the war: their father was an American diplomat living in the ‘Nato villa’ on the mainland who, with his wife, vanishes one day when the children are still very young, never to return. Johannes, a former seaman with his own dark past, looks after them in between drinking binges, calling them ‘my merciful gifts… as well as the great shame of his life’. Everywhere on the island is the presence of its owner, Jan-Heinz Kaufmann, who’d been a minister in Quisling’s government during the war and was imprisoned after it. During the siblings’ childhoods, he lurks in the shadows with his butterfly net, a vision of Norway’s shameful wartime past. This is a novel about the way historical crimes are written on a landscape, about the manner in which moral decay takes on physical form.
What makes The Tempest truly special, though, is the risks that Sem-Sandberg takes with narrative conventions, the way that his prose seems to break every rule in the creative writing handbook, and yet does so joyfully, recklessly and utterly convincingly.
That such stylistic complexity is rendered in a manner that feels entirely natural is testimony to the great skill of the translator, Anna Paterson. The prose leaps wilfully between past and present tenses, the voice suddenly breaks into the second person and at one point Johannes takes over Andreas’s first-person narrative. Perspectives telescope in and out, giving us sweeping passages of history or wide-angle landscapes followed by intimately observed and close-up moments in time. It’s as if the book’s most significant borrowing from Shakespeare’s play is not the island setting, but rather Prospero’s total control of narrative, the omnipotence of the author-magician.