‘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.